I started writing this song about 30 years ago. Maybe longer. I honestly don’t even remember when the idea first came to me, but I seem to recall that I already had the basic idea some years before I started thinking in terms of making it a song rather than a story, which would put it somewhere in the early to mid 70s.
It was about someone who wasn’t me but was maybe a little – or more than a little – like me coming from Michigan to California and getting caught up in the golden-ness of it all. Sort of like “Hotel California” minus the cocaine abuse and the 50 million units sold, and also, hopefully, minus the most-annoying-song-ever factor that that latter tune seems to arouse in many of my friends (personally, I like it just fine, but please try not to let that cloud your judgment of me).
The good news is that yesterday I finished writing another line, which means my as yet untitled (though I suspect the ultimate name will have something to do with Michigan) song is now about 60% done, meaning in turn that I should have it finished and recorded by the time I’m 100. Maybe sooner, as it’s really only the words I’m waiting on; the music has been ready ever since the late 90s. In fact, the Potatomen occasionally played it in practice sessions, though it never officially became a Potatomen song.
Actually, who am I kidding? I just went through the song again and realized the most of the first chorus and all of the second chorus (two completely different sets of lyrics) remain undone, not to mention a couple verses (they’re short; this is not one of those epic novel-length songs that I used to write in the 90s). Oh well. Maybe it’ll get done one day, and maybe by the time it is my fingers will be too arthritic to play it on guitar. Or I’ll discover that I subconsciously lifted the whole thing from some popular song by John Cougar Mellencamp or Limp Bizkit. Anyway, here I am on the airplane headed back to New York after a week in California, during most of which I was brutally cut off from the internet by my mother’s refusal to pay for broadband access (when my brother used to live next door we strung a cable across the driveway to pirate his feed, but alas, no more); otherwise, I would have posted a plethora of comments on and impressions of the Golden State, circa now. Probably not, actually, but it’s a good excuse.
I must say, though, that it was a good time to visit. September and October usually offer the best weather in the Bay Area, and although there were a couple days of chilly winds and one night that I had to bundle up in a fleece, a hoodie and a jacket, for the most part it was warm and sunny and the sky was positively pristine, at least compared with what I’m used to seeing in Brooklyn. And speaking of the sky, I’d no sooner left San Francisco Airport on an East Bay-bound BART train when the setting sun illuminated everything to the west with an ineffably delicate golden yellow light, the sort I’ve never seen on the East Coast or, for that matter, anywhere except California. It was a good omen, I reckoned, especially considering that when I land in California I’m often filled with foreboding, dread and regret.
This time I was only mildly annoyed to be away from New York, and somewhat looking forward to a relaxing week in what some people still consider one of the loveliest places on earth. I did too, once, and even though I frequently have negative things to say about the Bay Area, I have to admit that many parts of it are stunningly beautiful, that it has the best burritos in the world, and that some of the people there are pretty awesome, too. If there’s a downside on that front, it’s that I won’t be able to look a New York burrito in the face for some time to come, at least not without having an overwhelming compulsion to tell it how much it sucks compared to the real article.
On the day I arrived I got to Berkeley just an hour or so too late to catch some films at Gilman presented by the multi-talented and ever-lovely Janelle Blarg, but I did get to crash the after-party at Picante, just down the street, where something like 50 people sat at the longest burrito table ever, so long that they had to text or tweet each other from opposite ends. Also got to watch the EBOTS, a soccer team featuring the likes of Patrick Hynes and Kendra K,, methodically annihilate another side whose name I didn’t catch, but were bigger, stronger and faster to no apparent avail.
On Sunday I braved the dysfunctional public transit system (the freeway was backed up for seven miles, so options were limited) to attend the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. The first half of the journey, on BART, was reasonably okay. True, the train was late, and thanks to recent service cuts (i.e., they took the schedule back to the crappy every-20-minutes that it has been for all but a year or two of that miserable, overpriced system’s almost 40 year existence, and lopped off half the cars to save more money for executive perks and to pay off the corrupt labor unions), horribly overcrowded, but it got us to San Francisco no more than five minutes later than the promised time.
That’s where the fun began. When the Channel Tunnel between France and England first opened, someone likened the experience of transferring from the French leg of the Eurostar to the rickety old British Rail tracks to “riding in on a 21st century rocket ship and then switching to a 19th century oxcart as we hit British soil.” Going from BART to the San Francisco Muni was a bit like that. First, there was no working escalator, which meant about 500 disembarking passengers had to stand in line for 10 minutes or so to get onto the single staircase. The mess was not helped by the many bicycle-toting eco-freaks, who I’m normally happy to see, but who in the melee managed to knock over a few old ladies and the like.
But that was nothing compared to the fiasco that greeted us at the top of the stairs. Presumably operating under the assumption that everybody walks around with a pocketful of quarters, Muni, which at one time did in fact cost a quarter, but which now demands eight of them for passage, has never seen fit to install turnstiles that accept dollar bills. Or machines that sell tickets. Or change machines. So you have the aforementioned 500 passengers, many of them tourists who had no idea they were entering a transit system operated by and for bumbling potheads, milling about, scratching their heads, and sporadically directing questions and (understandably) abuse at the only Muni employee in sight, an aging fellow who looked like he’d had a few tokes himself before showing up for work and seemed to find the whole mess utterly hilarious.
As long as he was just sitting there in a booth getting paid whatever Muni employees get paid to do so, you’d think Muni might have set him up to do something useful, like, for example, sell tickets or make change, but no, all he was empowered to do was explain (after telling one customer after another, “Calm down, sir. Are you finished yelling? When you are, I will explain to you how you can get change for your dollar bills”), that there was indeed a secret way to get the necessary quarters (once upon a time, you could have used the BART change machines, but they now only accept tens and twenties). As it happens, the BART ticket machines (not the “change” machines) will break a dollar, but if and only if you press a code letter (hey, since I’m so magnanimous, I’ll tell you instead of making you stand in line: it’s “H”) before inserting your money. You might think that putting up a sign stating this fact might be more efficient than paying somebody 50 grand a year to sit in a booth all day reciting it, but you also might think you are dealing with rational people who have an interest in providing smoothly functioning public transportation, in which case you would be very deluded indeed.
So, onto the Muni then, right? Not so fast. A simple matter of strolling over to one of the BART ticket machines? First off, half of them were out of service, while the still-functioning ones here were inundated with mobs of tourists, most of whom had barely a clue to what they were doing. I finally found a space in line behind some hippie chick who had successfully cracked the code, but for reasons that I will probably never learn, she was changing a whole pocketful of dollar bills. Twenty, thirty of them? I don’t know; what I do know is that before she was done, the machine was out of quarters.
I wandered down to the other end of the station to find the same situation in effect there, but finally was able to get my quarters and head eagerly to the Muni turnstile. The turnstile at this end had a woman in charge, and instead of sitting in her booth, she had come out to give directions to a confused tourist who was stuck. I mean, apparently he was stuck; I don’t know why else he would have continued to stand there in the turnstile asking questions while the Muni employee patiently explained the same thing to him over and over and 50 or 75 people cooled their heels waiting for the two of them to get out of the way. I went back to the original turnstile, inserted my quarters, and tried to ignore the smirk from the Muni-man-in-the-booth who, I swear, glanced at his watch to confirm that it had taken me a full 20 minutes to make the 50-foot transfer from BART to Muni.
From then on, I thought, it would be nothing but smooth sailing. And it was, until the train I was on came out of the tunnel and began stopping at every street corner for another hundred people, their baggage, and their chicken coops, to pile on. My favorite passenger was the very ill-tempered 300 pound man in a wheelchair (it’s not that I don’t support the disabled, but from all appearances, this guy’s only disability was being too fat to walk), who insisted that everybody, including the other two wheelchair users, who seemed genuinely disabled, get out of the way so he could move his wheelchair into the spot that he wanted, running over my toe in the course of doing so.
Once again, I pondered the thought processes at work in the minds of Muni management. There’s a very well-publicized festival in Golden Gate Park, expected to draw as many as 750,000 people? (That’s bigger than Woodstock, folks.) Parking is limited in Golden Gate Park even on an ordinary Sunday, so most people will have to come via public transit? Do you think maybe we should put on extra buses and streetcars? Nah, what the hell for. It’s not our problem.
Nor is it yours, dear reader, so I’ll lay off the Muni-bashing and cut to where I got off the streetcar 10 blocks early, figuring (correctly) that it would be faster to walk. Except for a misbegotten plan that saw me trying to take a scenic route through the Arboretum and having, in a more undignified manner than I would have anticipated, to awkwardly clamber over an eight-foot cyclone fence (hey, I’m not as young as I used to be!) because the Arboretum had no exits where I needed them, the rest of my journey was pleasant, relatively, until I arrived in the middle of a few hundred thousand dyed in the wool Bay Areans milling about like the cattle (and in a few cases, not smelling noticeably different) on one of those 10,000 acre Central Valley ranches.
I really enjoyed the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a few years ago, despite the vast clouds of pot smoke and a surfeit of comatose individuals. This time there seemed to be less pot smoke and fewer comatose individuals, though in the case of the hippies, crusties, and ferals who peppered the crowd, a little more unconsciousness on their part wouldn’t have troubled me. It was also very difficult to get anywhere near most of the performers, and in any event, I found myself no longer in the mood, having missed many of the acts I was most interested in. And while the Festival is a pretty awesome thing and a credit to the city of San Francisco, it just may have gotten too big for its surroundings.
Anyway, I particularly wanted to see Marianne Faithfull (who I’ve only just discovered also bears the title of Baroness Sacher-Masoch, inherited from a great uncle who was the Baron Sacher-Masoch). Back around 1980 her Broken English album provided a gravel-throated sound track to my New Wave debauchery, and I wondered how that remarkable voice of hers had held up over the past quarter century.
Well, the voice had held up just fine, but not much else had. Oh, she looked good enough, all things considered, but performance-wise she had succumbed to Debbie Harry-Patti Smith syndrome, i.e., carrying on a bit like a swinging grandmother who’s had a couple extra nips of sherry at the wedding reception. She mostly phoned in her part of the show, and turned the rest over to her band, who sounded as though they’d be more at home in a cocktail lounge, complete with lots of smooth but pointless licks and the tedious habit of stretching every song out to twice its normal length. After a six-minutes-plus rendition of “Broken English,” (the original was four and a half), I’d had enough, and wandered away without waiting for my favorite Faithfull song, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” The famous Frisco wind had begun to kick up, and the fog was rolling in; over the years I’ve endured enough frostbite at Golden Gate Park concerts to know that no matter how many jackets or hoodies I’d brought (one of each), I didn’t need to stay there till the bitter end.
Instead I had an extremely enjoyable walk from the Outer Sunset (30th and Judah) to the Mission (16th and Valencia), where I enjoyed my favorite burrito at La Cumbre. It never occurred to me to wait for a streetcar, which was wise on my part, as I’d already walked at least 24 blocks before a solitary N Judah came trundling into sight. If it’s any consolation to the many hundreds of festival-goers shivering in the chill twilight as they waited in vain for their ride home, I saw at least 10 or 12 streetcars headed in the opposite direction.
Public transportation aside (let me not neglect to mention that in addition to cutting back service, BART has again raised its fares, to the point where I’m sure it’s quite easily the most expensive as well as the most mismanaged subway system in America), I had a pretty decent week in California, which may come as a shock to my regular readers, who are used to my almost constant bashing of the Bay Area. There was a somewhat uneasy contretemps with an old girlfriend, but I certainly can’t blame that on Frisco or Berkeley, especially considering that she’s from Los Angeles and that I could never stay mad at her anyway.
And I got to see some of my favorite people, and missed out seeing a few more because the time went by so quickly. On a couple of the warmest and sunniest days, I even caught myself thinking, “You know, it’s not so bad here. I bet I could live here if I had to,” the sort of thinking that gives me pause because I know, as the saying goes, this way lies madness.
Yes, maybe some day I could live there again, but not anytime soon, because the whole golden dream aspect of California is still way too much in the past tense for me to bear. It’s groaning under the weight of at least 40 years of bad governance, responsibility for which can be placed more or less equally on the avaricious, ideological right and the dingbat, incompetent left. California was once one of the best-run states in the land (provided one is prepared to overlook the pervasive Babbitry and racism that characterized those “good old days.”) But it seems like somewhere around the time of Altamont, a significant part of the body politic departed for Neverland, and I don’t mean the Michael Jackson version thereof, though his child-in-an-adult-body schtick could serve as an appropriate synecdoche for the mental and emotional condition of California as a whole.
Some of my best, and certainly my most productive years thus far were spent in California. I’ll always love the place and its people for the way it and they took me in at a time when I really didn’t belong anywhere else. I came there chasing a dream, and for the most part that dream came true far beyond my wildest expectations. Tonight I was looking at some photos from the old days on Spy Rock, and seeing in a way that I could never see when I was in the midst of it, the unspeakable, almost terrifying beauty that surrounded me there. And that’s just one tiny corner of a state that is undeniably one of the most beautiful and marvelous places on earth.
Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile… I always rebelled against that old saw because I don’t accept the notion of separating man from nature, but it’s difficult not to say – with appropriate apologies to Easy Rider – to the 40 million citizens of this much-blessed but very bankrupt land, “We blew it, man. We really blew it.”