Monday, June 22, 2015

San Francisco Celebrates City Hall Centennial... With Classic Punk Rock


Penelope Houston, Jello Biafra, Chuck Prophet and Novena Carmel (left to right) rock San Francisco (click to enlarge). Photo by John Margaretten

by Denise Sullivan

"That was for librarian Cynthia Hurd, murdered two nights ago for being black in America," said Penelope Houston from the stage of Friday night's musical Centennial Celebration of City Hall, punctuating her 38-year-old song, "The American In Me," concerning the country's culture of violence. Accompanied by Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, Houston, who works by day as a city librarian and archivist, originally cut the song in 1977 with her history-making punk rock band the Avengers (they opened the last ever show by the Sex Pistols in San Francisco), and her remarks were welcome commentary at the mid-point of an  impressive cross-generational revue assembled by Prophet to sing the songs of San Francisco (a second stage devoted to jazz and blues held down by vocalist Lavay Smith featured internationally recognized hometown talent like Jules Broussard and Paula West).

Timed to coincide with the US Conference of Mayors, a visit to the city by President Obama, and a $33,000 a head fundraiser organized by House leader Nancy Pelosi, the outdoor event was a "a unique public private partnership" sponsored by PG&E, ATT, Wells Fargo and Twitter, according to the City's bumpf supported by the discreet logos flanking the stage. Representing the City's musical history from the dawn of rock and folk, the program veered from the dark "Tom Dooley" by the Kingston Trio to the excruciatingly light Beau Brummels and Journey, then back to dark as honorary San Franciscan Mark Kozelek turned in a terrifying performance of his true life tale, "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes." As Prophet led the musicians often accompanied by Nona Brown's Inspirational Music Collective (a full backing chorus) and a string section, and journalist Ben Fong Torres emceed, it was Houston and her punk rock brethren Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) who used their stage time outside the US Mayor's conference to stand down local and societal ills and sock it to 'em. Punk rock, alongside hip hop has long served as contemporary music's conscience and soul, or at  least since rock and folk has largely abandoned overt messaging and moved toward a more opaque and obscure language and centrist views. But there are some singers who mercifully shall not be moved from their mission to disrupt business and politics as usual.

Immediately following Houston, as a string section plucked "California Uber Alles," Jello Biafra noted, "This one's for City Hall," then he spilled his guts into "Let's Lynch The Landlord." Biafra, who took his own bid for mayor in 1979, was clearly delighted to be back on the civic beat. He told the San Francisco Weekly, "My hope for this festival, zillion-dollar light show or not, is that it's a celebration of the vibrant art and culture that makes San Francisco such a destination for other people. It's a shame the rent has gotten so expensive that people don't keep drifting in here from all over the country as teenagers, or a little older, all chasing a dream-- that's what I did." Biafra's dream led him to becoming one of the most recognized and fervently progressive voices in punk as leader of the Dead Kennedys and later as a solo artist, though it's also been at a cost. He's been persistently pestered by law enforcement since the day his band's name appeared on a marquee; he's survived an obscenity trial and fought his own eviction on Guerrero Street decades ago. But times have changed dramatically in San Francisco as reported here and elsewhere. Evictions are more frequent and uglier. And due to poor planning and housing policies we've seen large swathes of the City's culturally creative and contributing working, artist, LGBTQ, Latino, and African American populations continue to be priced-out, often following Ellis Act evictions alongside more unlawful and unethical practices.

As I watched Biafra perform "Let's Lynch The Landlord" with some urgency, I stood by friends who with the assistance of the City Attorney are presently  facing down one of the ugliest of all landlords our City and LA will ever know. I thought of the others we've lost to evictions, AIDS, poor health and other causes and wondered who will be next to be evicted or passed over in favor of a younger, richer and whiter San Franciscans. Steve Barton, the singer-songwriter and guitarist from Translator who left the city years ago told me of the housing crisis impacting West Hollywood where he's lived with his wife for 13 years.  Later in the evening,  he lead his frustration anthem, "Everywhere That I'm Not," to great effect as once again I contemplated where we'd been, how far we'd come, and where we'll all land when the boom goes bust.

"Don't forget who you are. Be true to yourself San Francisco," implored Debora Iyall following her battle cry, "Never Say Never." Iyall was at the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969; she returned for the punk rock invasion of the city in the late '70s and early '80s and when called upon to serve in the here and now, she answers. It's values, like that, among others, that punk rock taught her generation and that others in the tradition of resistance, like the protestors who jammed streets downtown and the creators of the Black Lives Matter installation at the celebration's periphery, still cleave to, while under under the gold dome of City Hall, insiders partied on.

"We've got to live together," sang Novena Carmel during grand finale singalong of her dad Sly Stone's hit, "Everyday People." And for a few hours, the remaining residents of the city that knows how did just that.

Debora Iyall and Chuck Prophet rock San Francisco

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