Packing 10 tales of embarrassing scenarios involving everyday people caught in tawdry situations, Crowd Surfing, the new comedy album from Oakland native Moshe Kasher sees the self-proclaimed “Phil Donahue of the Internet Age”—some of you may need to google that reference—extract mortifying tales from an eager crowd in Washington DC. (Kasher performs Fri/24 at Sketchfest, the day the album is released.)
His verbose, digital comedic speed in this fully crowd-driven project propels the record to operate like a semi-concept album. Kasher tosses out the antiquated “Who are you and what do you do for a living” line of tomfoolery. Shit immediately gets weird.
Just how “Dirt McGirt”?
Letʻs see. One tale involves a woman who accidentally breaks off a vibrator in her boyfriends’ butt: Sheʻs not built for ass-play. Another involves a couples’ first date which leads to performing 69, and the woman, er, releasing on his chest. Without consent…. or toilet paper.
Kasher is multitasking, like a Boss. Working blue, picking out freaks, keeping the crowd engaged and the stories bizarre. His penchant for coming across relatable, a hat-tip to idols—Patrice OʻNeal, Paula Poundstone and Don Rickles—nets the risqué boudoir experiences. It’s a major flex.
Forever upholding the multi-hyphenate moniker, Kasher is an acclaimed author, host of several podcasts and stoker of alt-right ire with his now-defunct Comedy Central series “Problematic with Moshe Kasher.” Heʻs written and produced for the television shows Another Period, Wet Hot American Summer, Little America, and the upcoming Betty on HBO, and appeared as an actor on Portlandia, The League, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
But this project right here reverses the idea that crowd-work should be regarded as a sub-par skill, or a move executed to kill time during a set. Rather it should be an essential tool in every stand-upʻs repertoire.
Kasher learned from artists who raised this interplay to transcendent solo standards. Sometimes it’s the only thing that can right the ship if all other aspects of the set keep hitting the toilet. New bits need constant work to hit right and stand-by bits often hit their expiration dates quicker than expected.
You don’t want to get caught out there.
When its cooking, similar to a baseball game, everything important is happening inside this portal. Exterior measurements of time donʻt count. Kasher, who grew up in North Oakland’s Temescal and Piedmont Avenue neighborhoods and started his stand-up career at the Luggage Store in San Francisco, walks side by side with his audience for the entire hour here. Showing his vulnerability, in the most comedic way, along with the storytellers.
Akin to seeing Black Thought of The Roots do a 10-minute freestyle, crowd-work can be jazz too.
Kasher, however, delivers us erupting punk-rock. The material is perfection, just sometimes, Moshe, who is a funny professional podcaster and comedian, needs to shut the eff up and let the people tell the story before he goes in for the satiric dissection.
Gore Vidal once remarked that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates,” but from the vantage point of late December 2019, it’s actually “decade in review.”
It’s impossible not to pull a reverse Orpheus — which is to say, sneak an apprehensive glance forward while trying to train your steely glare back into Hades. All signs point to unimaginable — yet also well-imagined — horrors in the decades to come, from rising neo-fascism to rising oceans. However frightful the 2010s may look to us now, future generations will almost certainly view the present grinding chaos as doubly unforgivable, because we know it is our last chance and we have squandered it away.
History — in the dialectical, Marxist-Hegelian sense — supposedly ended after 1989. [Boy was that ever a whopper! —Ed.] But we are deep into the future now, rudderless and alarmingly passive. In 2020, we will be halfway between the television debut of Star Trek (Sept. 8, 1966) and the date of First Contact between Earth and the Vulcans (April 4, 2063). 2020 is also the 30th anniversary of “Hey, it’s the ’90s!” an expression that roughly meant, “Girls can kiss girls and I’m cool with that because history has recently ended and we’re just mopping up, Laura Palmer, Milli Vanilli, Molly-you-in-danger-girl.”
In 2020, Jadyn Malone turns 10, Willow Smith turns 20, The Weeknd turns 30, Macaulay Culkin turns 40, Mariah Carey turns 50, RuPaul turns 60, Bill Murray turns 70, Ringo Starr turns 80, Dolores Huerta turns 90, Wayne Thiebaud turns 100, and a Disney animator named Ruthie Tompson who worked on Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, and Fantasia turns 110. If you were born on or before Dec. 31, 1979, you will soon have been alive in six different decades. The future has dislocated itself.
Writing in Buzzfeed, Katherine Miller observed that the 2010s have indeed broken our sense of time, with social media and the urge to dig out our phones gobbling up every last liminal moment. It’s no surprise that Netflix, which brought us the instant gratification of binge-watching the decade after it kept us waiting for red envelopes in the mail, was the best-performing stock of the decade, up 4,000 percent. And what did we watch? Dystopia! The 2010s belonged to the Walking Dead.
But the dystopian strain of popular culture seems to have faded over the last three years, subtly incorporated into daily life. We know we’re doomed (though some of us staunchly refuse to believe it) and the needle isn’t moving, so when a climate messenger from Sweden sails over to warn us in no uncertain terms, we either mock her or make a towering idol of her, exactly as Greta Thunberg asked us not to do.
Apocalypse has likewise fallen away, largely folded into the cleaner moral schema of the Marvel Universe. No one has cinematically blown up New York City in years. After getting decimated in Contagion and obliterated in San Andreas, Pacific Rim, and at least a couple Planet of the Apes, nobody’s touching San Francisco, either. If anything, Silicon Valley has become a net exporter of destruction, undermining efforts to consume less energy on a roasting planet and threatening to vanquish liberal democracy entirely. But maybe Charlottesville channeled the fervor for near-future spectacular destruction into Handmaid’s Tale-style torture porn far more than 9/11 ever could.
2001 was probably the beginning of this end. The year 1999, Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century,” felt like a portal to endless nano-improvement, when a digital public square and e-democracy felt promising. Obama-era nudge-ocrats inherited that sentiment and giddily tried to expand upon it. But all decade long, we’ve been fighting over universal health care, the era’s singular achievement (to put it charitably). And look where we are now. Other ends-of-decades weren’t off-center like this. Even 1969, hip-deep in the indigenous American berserk, had plenty of optimism amid all the insanity. So did 1979, in its inverted Reaganite way. But not since 1939 has the appraisal of past required an unflinching look ahead at probable doom.
What is it we see? The hopeful liberal program for the 2020s runs approximately as follows: Trump is defeated decisively enough to render non-viable any plans to stay in the White House, and Democrats recapture the Senate, too. They rally the country under a World War II-esque climate mobilization program that effectively de-carbonizes the economy in 15 years, sucking billions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere via technologies we’ve barely invented let alone scaled, all the while while palpably reversing 50 years of mounting income inequality and racist voter suppression. Reclaiming America’s Sorkin-esque world leadership under a new mantle of democratic socialism and broadly shared prosperity neutralizes the worldwide populist tide and more or less saves the planet from a chain of events that could lead to the end of industrial civilization and mass extinction. The end. [I can hear the Leftist eyeballs rolling from here—Ed.]
A decade-and-a-half is a brief window to transform the world, but keep in mind the iPhone is not yet 13 years old. The beginning of a new decade calls for answers now, but the Magic 8-Ball will be murky until at least Super Tuesday. Of course, current polls indicate that the eventual nominee will be former vice president Centrism Silver.
Therefore, the considerably more plausible nightmare scenario for the 2020s involves Trump winning by repeating his 2016 inside straight — which is to say, holding Texas and Arizona while narrowly sweeping the Upper Midwest as 4 million excess Democratic votes pile up in California. He then bumbles from self-made crisis to self-made crisis for another four years, eroding institutional checks and reversing the entire 20th century as the Republican Party further hardens into a cult. Roe v. Wade is overturned 5-4, and voting in red states becomes a de facto privilege.
This is awful on the merits, but worse because that level of degradation might be irreversible. Let’s say that in 2024, a younger, browner, and more drought-prone America overcomes GOP-imposed structural obstacles, resulting in a Democratic landslide. The demographically guaranteed progressive utopia that is always one election away finally arrives. With a mandate for change, Congress ushers in a racially enlightened Green New Deal — but an ossified judiciary packed with so many retrograde judges halts almost all of it, rendering progressive legislation moot. Dysfunction becomes permanent, every year is hotter than the last, and xenophobic populism remains potent.
We had 12 years, and then we had Five Years, and then we had none. Among elites and pundits who just want to “get things done,” China’s success breeds new envy for top-down authoritarianism. Big Tech happily obliges, and by 2030, all human activity becomes monetized in an inescapable corporate surveillance state that spends untold trillions to incarcerate climate refugees as the planet slowly dies. Bummer.
As of last month, the Blade Runner title card reading “Los Angeles November, 2019” became another artifact of the not-too-distant-future’s past. The typeface is Goudy Old Style, an almost perversely brilliant choice to evoke a hybrid of time, since it belongs in a cookbook from 1924.
This was the future, and we warped it. The decade began with a PG&E explosion in San Bruno — also not unlike the pyro Blade Runner intro — and ended with the utility in bankruptcy again, having helped burn down half the state. It began with a Japanese earthquake that almost no scientists predicted, an ended with wildfires and hurricanes that all scientists predicted. California burned, over and over. Australia burned. London’s 24-story Grenfell Tower burned. The Amazon never stopped burning — and Brazil’s National Museum in Rio caught fire, too.
Universal Studios burned in 2008, but the truth about just how much was lost didn’t emerge until this year. Indeed, it was a decade of data breaches — Yahoo, Cambridge Analytica, Equifax — whose ever-increasing breadth mirrors the trend of Hottest Year Ever. It was also a decade of whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and the Panama Papers and #MeToo. Appallingly little has changed.
Food got better. Makeup got better. Facial recognition got better. Cars got better — on the inside, at least, since their exteriors look much as they did in 1995 — although we’re not even safer on the road for having forfeited style. Our collective understanding of the gender-nonconforming and the neurodivergent is better. The widespread recognition that gender exists on a spectrum and not a binary might be the most significant shift in Western thought in a century or more — and the same alt-right that denies gender is mutable still believes eating a soyburger will do the trick.
There is “hope.” Star Wars drew to its conclusion based on that premise, completely knocking The Hobbit trilogy out of the public mind in the process. The 2010s arrived with Mark Zuckerberg as Time’s Person of the Year, and, incredible as it now sounds, a recent potential presidential candidate. Now Zuckerberg’s a Holocaust-denial excuser and crypto-sociopathic boogyman, and even avowed capitalists want to break Facebook up. Zuckerberg’ll make out just fine, but that arc should give us encouragement. We can learn.
We can learn. When this decade began, I silently judged people who used too many exclamation points in an email. Now my heart is tenderer and I tack one on to every other sentence, plus I blurt out “I love you!” as a casual form of goodbye to people I barely know. There is hope. It is now, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, as easy to imagine the end of capitalism as it is to imagine the end of the world. We can make of that grim equation what we will, because we have no choice. Happy new year.
As setups to Thanksgiving jokes go, a manic wild turkey that burst into a California prison compound seems almost too on-the-nose, considering how two other turkeys received presidential pardons that very day. But that was the premise for an 11-minute podcast in late November, in which inmate Bryan Mazza admits he “got his ass kicked not once, but twice” by a deranged fowl, its feathers everywhere and its wattles presumably quivering with indignation.
“I discovered something new: They can fly, they’re fast, and they’re mean as hell,” Mazza says. “It was a 12-pound bird. … It’s unbelievable how strong birds are.”
We won’t divulge any spoilers of that episode of Uncuffed. (OK, just one: The turkey “pardons itself,” getting out of the facility with the help of a guard.) Recorded and produced by a dozen men at Solano State Prison and San Quentin State Prison, in partnership with Bay Area NPR affiliate KALW, Uncuffed lets inmates tell their own stories, from making music to redress previous wrongs to opening up emotionally in the company of people who also had violent, difficult upbringings.
“I didn’t know that I could learn radio and do radio,” co-host and -producer Spoon Jackson tells 48 Hills from Solano State Prison in Vacaville, where loud announcements from a PA system periodically interrupt our first, 10-minute interview. “I had a little notoriety before I got involved in the radio: I’m a poet, been published around the world, did acting before getting involved with Uncuffed. I learned ProTools, learned to cut, paste, edit.”
“I find things that are human, like everybody has human things that make us human,” he adds. “I’m doing a piece on a guy that fell out with his kids. It doesn’t only happen in prison. It happens on the streets. There’s a microcosm of prison to the street — it’s just that everything is magnified here. I’ve got a piece I’ve done on yoga, crocheting, knitting.”
That focus on the mundane is light years away from the ultraviolent hellscapes prisons are often depicted as. Ever since Piper Kerman wrote about her 13-month sentence for drug trafficking, American media have begun paying closer attention to the day-to-day realities of incarceration. A quarter of the world’s 10 million imprisoned people are confined in America, which meant a dizzying number of untold stories. That it took a blonde woman from a privileged background to get the wider world to look beyond a “lock ’em away and throw away the key” mentality is undoubtedly a little icky. But it worked.
One of the strengths of Orange Is the New Black (the Netflix show, more than Kerman’s memoir of the same name) was how it broadened its scope to include the lived experiences of women of various races, ethnicities, socioeconomic strata, and gender formations. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the current shift from a highly punitive, “three strikes” culture of justice to a more reparative, humane approach owes itself in part to narratives like OITNB.
But another result is that Americans who have never been incarcerated may now feel as though they know what daily life in prison is more or less like. That means it’s more important than ever to give incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people control over the discourse. We saw this in a Democratic town-hall hosted by The Marshall Project at Philadelphia’s notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in October. Attended by only a handful of candidates — one of whom, Sen. Kamala Harris, has already dropped out — it may not have been as consequential as advocates hoped. But it was still revolutionary, in that people who have “repaid their debt to society” (to use some hoary phrasing) led it.
“You are not your crime” is an important principle in the quest to end over-incarceration and recidivism, from Ban the Box to the prison-abolition movement. Uncuffed occasionally discusses its subjects’ felonies, but always in context. When discussing people who have gotten out, it’s less about the penance than the rehabilitation. When discussing people who are still incarcerated, it could be anything.
“My friend who’s Black got a piece on being friends with a skinhead,” Jackson says. “We got a piece on my poetry. Whatever story that we come up with that’s unique — that’s the one we want to do. The universal is personal, so any personal experience can be equated to anything outside. You have Democrats and Republicans, and people in here that love Trump and people in here that disagree with Trump. We did a piece on deportation. The guy who got deported was Asian but still — you got a history of discriminating against Mexicans, and Trump said he wants poels from Scandinavia, not Africa. We discuss all kinds of things.”
The first podcast debuted in October, and episodes come out every other Monday, after review by a public information officer who makes sure there’s “nothing egregious or crazy,” as Jackson put it. Musicians are prominent, as they have been on all the KALW productions from the two prisons since 2013. Episode 1 of Uncuffed deals with Sky Boii, an acoustic guitarist who sought redemption in the Pacific Islander community through song, after having taken the life of a fellow Tongan. There’s also “someone who relied on his ballet to save him from a riot,” and a story about a traveler who came to California to pick weed. If you’re unclear about the distinctions between a hobo, a tramp, and a bum, you’ll learn it from Spoon.
“We are speaking to you from a room, with windows and white, tarnished paint,” Jackson says at the top of the first episode. That bare description underlines just how little we heard from inmates during the “realignment” wave of prison reform earlier this decade, when the courts forced California to relieve extreme overcrowding in its network of 33 state prisons. Ditto when Gov. Gavin Newsom effectively ended capital punishment in California by fiat after several failed ballot propositions to repeal it. The conversation was always about them, but seldom with them. And it’s still overcrowded in there.
“This is wrong,” Jackson says. “They know it’s overcrowded, yet they can have pockets of overcrowding to reduce it to 137 percent. It’s finally started to happen — certain prisons they can keep overcrowded, but the overall prison population has to go down. … Prisoners suffer from PTSD.”
While Uncuffed refrains from prurient descriptions of life on the inside, it’s surprisingly tender about psychology and people’s mental states. Inmates who you might suppose are quintessential tough guys talk candidly about knitting and yoga. Episode 4 deals with Maserati-E, a musician who was released from prison in August at age 25, paroled while wearing a “super-super-dope” pink, Pitbull-style suit. Five inmates use his story as a springboard to discuss loss, such as the inability to attend a grandmother’s funeral while they’re locked up. It’s a remarkable, 23-minute discussion about hip-hop, desperation, death, encounters with Child Protective Services, poetry, and police brutality, shared among men who were raised to believe that boys don’t cry and who now, as imprisoned adults, want to make sure that others “don’t end up next door to me” in a cell.
As one says, “We’re conditioned to act and not to feel.” Well, now they’re doing both.
You can listen to Uncuffed, produced by inmates from San Quentin and Solano State prisons in partnership with KALW, here.
I met local fashion label Korrupt‘s Henry Miyoshi and his business-and-life partner John McArdle at a bastion of old school Lower Haight spirit, Cafe International, a couple months ago. We were all reeling from whatever bad news had hit the wires that day, but some hot tea on the back patio and talk about fashion—particularly Miyoshi’s incredible story of how he became a designer and built the Korrupt label— was the perfect tonic on a late October afternoon.
Korrupt’s aesthetic has been pretty ubiquitous since it launched 13 years ago—the designs, mostly seen on t-shirts, bring a mix of punk attitude and post-apocalyptic glamour, an edgy mashup combining metal, Soviet propaganda, and other typography with etymological, anatomical, and historical imagery. It’s something you would wear while scavenging a Mad Max landscape on the way to a basement rock show.
“I grew up in Bangkok. My imagery really stems from collecting beetles there,” Miyoshi told me. “Their iridescence and shape fascinated me. I would tear up stickers and put little pieces on each beetle, and watch them move around like glowing tanks.” It was an early example of the collage method that Miyoshi would embrace later with Korrupt.
Miyoshi left Bangkok when he was seven—he had what he calls a “rough upbringing” and landed first in Hawaii, and then, after high school, found himself homeless and couch-surfing in Los Angeles. This was in the ’90s, and LA was experiencing an underground punk renaissance. Miyoshi was captivated first by the scene, attending tons of shows, and then by the show posters and flyers themselves, with their jumble of imagery and fonts pinched from other sources and then crudely pasted and photocopied, taped to light poles or wheatpasted on walls.
KORRUPT “ENDTIMES” shot at Wasteland Artists’ Colony, Alameda | photography Christopher Knox | creative direction John McArdle | crew: Jeremy Stewart, Tandy Kyne, Eric Paulsen, Steph Stokes, and Karen Hanzawa | hair & makeup: Lisa Zomer and Anthony Christopher | accessories/jewelry: Fatal Jewelry
“I found a real home in the LA punk scene, and thought, I can make these posters, but better,” Miyoshi laughed. “The anarchy and freedom of being able to take images from anything and mix them together really connected with me.” He would painstakingly cut out pictures and letters and paste them together to make posters and flyers, adding screenprinted details to the mix, which foretold Korrupt’s mixed-media style.
Miyoshi carried that aesthetic with him when he moved to San Francisco—he still looks like someone you’d see in a mosh pit, although his slicked-back hair is perfectly placed and his jean and boots are impeccably fitted. By this time he was fully committed to making it as an artist, but like all artists moving here, he needed a 9-to-5.
That took the form of designing window displays, first at Urban Outfitters, and then at Saks Fifth Avenue. It was at Saks that he was exposed to haute couture designers. He had a revelation: “I just thought it was incredible, coming form the punk world, that a designer like Vivienne Westwood could put a safety pin on something and charge $700! I saw so many designers selling things like that, Alexander McQueen and others taking this gritty, gross, punk look and upscaling it for the luxury market.”
Bitten hard by the fashion bug, Miyoshi started applying his deconstructive/reconstructive methods to old blazers and other items, ripping off the shoulders, stenciling across them, adding zippers. “I loved the idea of creating not just clothing but wearable art,” he said. “A total, unique piece unto itself. It echoed my experience living out of a suitcase, when you had very few items of clothing, and you had to make each one of them count.”
KORRUPT “LUX PUNK”photography: Joe Chavarria | creative direction: John McArdle | crew: Karen Hanzawa | hair & makeup: Raven & Rose, Roxy Cotten-Candy, and Anthony Christopher | accessories/jewelry: Yoly Jewelry/Bobbie’s Boutique | shot at: Huntington Hotel, San Francisco, CA
A quick study, he learned about the history of the High Gay Art of Fashion the traditional way: “An older queen I worked with taught me all about the designers and terminology. He was a character who could be quite abrasive, but he took a shine to me and recognized what i wanted to do. He suggested the name Korrupt for my brand.”
Miyoshi built a little business selling custom pieces to friends. He was getting increasingly disgusted with the ethics of overpricing items that were meant to be rebellious and took inspiration for street artists. With that in mind, he finally set off on his own with the Korrupt label in 2007. McArdle came on to help him manage his business and marketing.
Nowadays, business on Korrupt’s website is booming, and while Miyoshi eschews runway shows, he does set up booths at popular street fairs like Folsom and Haight. On his latest t-shirts, slogans and imperatives are juxtaposed with skeletons, insects, old horror movies, and traditional rebel imagery. He pays historic homage to neighborhoods like Oakland’s rapidly gentrifying Dogtown, and isn’t afraid to get political in some of his designs—his penchant for Soviet imagery, Russian text, and other provocative imagery has come in handy during the Trump regime.
“We have some pretty interesting conversations in the booth sometimes with people of different views,” Miyoshi said.
He finds that his “sense of the macabre” and taboo-challenging disposition is comforting in these discomfiting times, which helps him “design from the heart”—even when those designs are literally of a classic anatomical heart. Although his work is mostly screen-printed, many Korrupt pieces have hand-finished touches like sewn-on patches, safety pins and buttons, appliqués, strategic holes, or contrasted stitching. They’re also all still mostly designed by hand, with Henry drawing, cutting, pasting, resizing, and collaging before printing.
“I probably should learn to do more on the computer, it would save us so much time,” Henry laughed. “But I can’t shake that DIY pleasure in making something by hand, born from spending hours over a copier at Kinko’s until I get everything just right.”
Right after signing her first record deal with Arista Records in 1983, singer Whitney Houston swung by her best friend Robyn Crawford’s home with a gift.
It was a slate blue Bible with a message. She said that the two women, who met in 1980 as counselors at a summer camp in their hometown of East Orange, New Jersey, must end their two-year romantic relationship.
People who knew them were beginning to ask questions about their tight friendship and if the truth ever got out, it would make Houston’s journey to superstardom more difficult. The singer also wanted to have children someday and believed that if the two continued sleeping together, they would both “go to hell.”
“When Whitney gave me the Bible, I wasn’t totally blindsided,” Crawfordtold 48 Hills. “The ‘80s was a time when it was hard to be you, no matter who you were. We heard rumors about high-profile women all the time — that if a woman was close to another woman and didn’t have a man, it was, ‘Is she gay?’ Whitney believed that if we remained physical any longer, they would never leave us alone.”
Crawford acquiesced to Houston’s demand and continued standing by the singer — who’d go on to own the ‘80s and ‘90s with 11 charting-topping singles, including “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” and “I Will Always Love You” and starring roles in blockbuster films like “The Bodyguard,” “Waiting to Exhale,” and “The Preacher’s Wife” — as her trusted confidante and executive assistant.
The rumors persisted, however, and although Houston went on to marry (and later divorce) R&B singer Bobby Brown and have a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, she was still believed by many to be bisexual. Robyn was often referred to in the press as her “lesbian gal pal” — even after they parted ways in 2000. Houston’s tragic accidental death in 2012 did nothing to slow the rumor mill.
I spoke to Crawford about her beautifully penned tribute to her best friend, the circumstances behind their split, and how she keeps the late singer close to her to this day.
48 HILLSTake me back to when you first met Whitney Houston. What were you looking for?
ROBYN CRAWFORD At that time I had prayed for a friend, male or female. But I wanted this person to love me for who I am, to just love Robyn. Whitney, when I met her, was looking for a friend, too.
So I meet this young girl and we clicked and had this friendship. Then this friendship blossoms and grows free, open, honest, naked, and bare. When I say we told each other everything, I mean it, and we were there for each other.
48 HILLSWhen she ended your romantic relationship, do you believe that she did it of her own accord? Or was she advised to?
ROBYN CRAWFORD Her mother [Cissy Houston] didn’t like our closeness and Whitney told me about it, but in the same breath, she said her mother didn’t like anybody she brought around. Her mother also taught her that the business builds you up to tear you down and that if you sing professionally, it opens you up to all kinds of things.
But then spiritually, for the gift that Whitney had, she always gave her thanks to Jesus Christ. There was no misstep on that. They won’t give credit to Whitney for that, but it is true and she was private in her prayer when we were living together; this woman had a straight line to Jesus Christ. So I think it was twofold — her belief in her lord and savior and that she knew where her career was going.
48 HILLSThose words couldn’t have been easy to hear from someone that you cared about, no matter the reason.
ROBYN CRAWFORD She signed her deal and trusted me and believed I was her friend. So for me, even though I didn’t want to, I always felt that Whitney was the kind of person you wanted to love. I wanted to love her. But if she’s asking that of me and I’m a true friend and you just have one in this lifetime, then I best live up to that. So we did.
48 HILLSBut you had other romantic relationships while you continued to work with her?
ROBYN CRAWFORD Yes, I love touching. I love feeling affection and giving affection. It could be for five minutes and that’s fine because as long as I feel like I have a moment of intimacy, it was fair game for me. I also had two guys, along the way, while I was working with Whitney, but I didn’t know how to have a relationship.
I had to get myself together and figure out what was going to open me up and make me share myself with someone and that took me some time. My mother used to say, “Robyn, you have to give people a chance.”
48 HILLSI have to imagine that part of your difficulty stemmed from watching your parents’ relationship, which you describe in the book as very physically abusive.
ROBYN CRAWFORD I loved my father and certainly got my looks and athletic abilities from him, but I didn’t like him. But I loved and liked my mother. The communication between them — I could tell when it was going to reach that boiling point, and before it did, I was usually in the middle trying to make it better. I didn’t want my mother hurt and that’s usually what happened.
If you’re having a friend where you can be open and honest with them, you’re having a deep relationship, period. That’s what I got from my parents’ disturbances.
48 HILLSWhen you and Whitney eventually separated, was it because Bobby didn’t want you involved in their lives anymore?
ROBYN CRAWFORD I never felt like I left because of Bobby or because of the company or the way it was going. It was cumulative. I think, at that time, I felt that I had done all that I could do with the circumstances that were surrounding her and that I could no longer be effective. So rather than stay there, I felt that it was necessary to move forward with Robyn’s life.
And yes, when I said that I quit, that was in a moment of frustration. But I had weeks to think about that outburst and in those weeks I wanted to talk to Whitney first because we had been through and accomplished so much together. I wanted to tell her why I had come to this point and I wanted to know where she was in her head. I never got to have that conversation.
But I still felt my friendship. I still had the same love for her. I could still look into her eyes if I saw her and know and she would know that I know. That connection never goes away.
48 HILLSFans often say that Whitney will be forever with us through her music. How do you keep her close to you?
ROBYN CRAWFORD I use the phrase “the Whitney I know” when I should say, “the Whitney I knew,” because I feel her. When I need her, I just talk to her. I said in one of my interviews, “OK, Nip, this is it. I’m out here now. Just be with me on this, flow through me.” I believe that no one ever really dies, that you keep them with you.
48 HILLSYou’re currently in a long-term relationship with Lisa Hintelmann, whom you met back in the early ‘90s when she was handling Whitney Houston’s PR at PMK. How did you make this relationship work?
ROBYN CRAWFORD At first, we just worked together, but there was something about her that I felt was sharp, on it, and interesting. She eventually left PMK and I looked her up when she was with GQ. We went out, but I was traveling all over the world and really wasn’t ready for a relationship. Also, I was in Whitney’s world, so I couldn’t do things like holding Lisa’s hand for people to see. Then I just disappeared.
Then, years later, I called her and told her I’d gotten myself together, and wanted to talk to her, for her to take me back to the Robyn she remembers, and to tell me all the good and the bad. She told me how I was as a companion, and I went through all of that and showed that I was willing to give all of myself once I became whole.
Now we’ve been together for years and have two beautiful 10-year-olds, Jeremy and Gillian, and they’re kicking our tails.
ROBYN CRAWFORD: YEAR-END MICHELLE MEOW HOLIDAY SPECIAL Tue/17 6:30pm, $10 The Commonwealth Club of California, SF. More info here.
“Hyvää joulua” might not roll off the tongue as mellifluously as “Mele Kalikimaka,” but it is indeed the thing to say on a dark Helsinki Christmas Day. The sun goes down in Finland a little after 3 p.m., so the people of that cold clime sometimes need a bit of extra holiday cheer.
EnterAurora Glögg, a Nordic mulled wine concentrate. Created by Elina Fahlgren and Kira Åkerström to replicate the signature beverage of the holiday season in their native Finland, it’s a non-alcoholic syrup made from a proprietary winter spice blend — cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, among other things — that’s steeped in black currant puree, blueberry juice, and Concord grape juice. If you’ve ever smelled mulled wine simmering on a stove top, you know how evocative of wreaths and sleigh rides it can be. (At higher latitudes, you also get the Northern lights this time of year, hence the name Aurora, as in borealis.)
In Swedish, glögg is pronounced something like “glerg,” but Åkerström knows Americans are going to say “glog,” and doesn’t seem to mind. A “culinary producer” who develops recipes, creates content for magazines, and has filmed a TV show in San Francisco, she also happens to be a winner of MasterChef Finland.
“It was six months before we moved to San Francisco,” Åkerström says of her time on the show. “It was a tight finish, I have to admit. The whole competition was mentally and physically straining. If I remember right, we had three mystery boxes, and the first one was that we had to make an appetizer in 15 minutes. A whole fish.”
There was also a whole duck that had to be prepared four ways in 45 minutes, a high-pressure challenge that probably called for a stiff drink afterward to take the edge off. Finnish glögg, Åkerström says, is similar to German gluhwein, only “the Nordic version is more sweet and rich in taste — but not overly sweet.”
“For Gluhwein, I don’t think the Germans add sugar,” she says. “We just add a touch of sugar and bring the spices up front.”
“We both have a pretty sharp nose and taste buds, so we did very many variations and we picked the one that we both like,” says Fahlgren, a branding expert who’s a food blogger in her own right.
While associated with Christmas, some Finns drink glögg all winter long because it’s so satisfying when it’s cold outside. It’s especially common at parties called “Little Christmases,” where people go from house to house celebrating with their friends.
“Because it’s so strong, you drink a small amount,” she admits.
Åkerström and Fahlgren prefer Merlots and Zinfandels for the base, because they’re full-bodied without being tannic, but it’s good with sparkling wines for a variation on a Kir Royale, too. (It’s perfectly lovely without apple juice or blueberry juice, for those who want it without alcohol.) And if you want to get a little creative with it, they suggest drizzling it over yogurt or rice porridge — which isn’t widely consumed in the U.S. even though it’s about as fortifying of a breakfast as you’ll get anywhere. Rice porridge is a Christmas tradition in Finland, too, as it turns out.
“You usually hide an almond in the porridge and whoever finds it gets an early Christmas present,” Åkerström says, adding that the main event is really Christmas Eve, when dinner follows a visit to the cemeteries to light a candle for deceased loved ones. If that’s not dark enough, Santa Claus is known in that boreal land of reindeer as Joulupukki, which translates to “Christmas goat,” making him more of a pagan Krampus figure than a Kris Kringle.
Goats have famously un-discerning palates, too. But for most people, tastes acquired during childhood are impossible to shake. Aurora Glögg filled exactly that void.
“We used to make ours every holiday and then we moved here and we couldn’t find anything,” Åkerström says, “so we decided to make our own.”
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).”
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 HILLSAs 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.
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.
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!
FOG CITY NEWS 20TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Fri/8, 10am-6:30pm and Sat/9, 11am-6pm
Fog City News, SF. More info here.
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.
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.
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 do—Ed.] 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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
BLANKET THE HOMELESS RECORD RELEASE CONCERT WITH KING DREAM, MICKELSON, SHANNON KOEHLER AND MEMBERS OF STONES FOXES, BEN MORRISON OF BROTHERS COMATOSE, MEMBERS OF GOODNIGHT, TX, KEN NEWMAN
Thu/7, 7:30pm, $15-$17.
Independent, SF. Tickets and more info here.
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.
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 HILLSWhy 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.
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.
FLEA Fri/8, 7pm, $75-$95 (Includes a copy of Acid for the Children) JCCSF, SF. More info here.