OAKLAND 10:00 AM
Capping a storybook 2014-15 Season in which the Golden State Warriors dominated the NBA and emerged as basketball’s world champions for the first time in 40 years, the team’s victory parade kicked off in downtown Oakland at 10 am sharp. I was near Lake Merritt at that moment, out on my driving job making my first stop of the day. I was on the far side of the lake, so I missed all the traffic and blocked streets, but did see plenty of parade goers decked out in Warriors colors strolling along the greenway towards the lake and ultimately the Warriors celebration downtown. It was a grand day for a parade in the Bay Area. Even Pacifica had sunshine, according to the radio.
I continued making deliveries around Oakland’s foothills, monitoring the all-news AM radio station’s parade coverage for information about potential street closures. The field reporter seemed quite taken with the fact that San Francisco mayor Ed Lee was going to be one of the officials on hand in Oakland to congratulate the 2015 NBA champs, seeing as the Warriors had already announced their plans to leave the East Bay city and move to a more modern venue in San Francisco.
The reporter openly speculated about how the Oakland crowd might respond to San Francisco’s carpetbagging mayor showing up to kiss babies, smile for the cameras, and remind Oaklanders that the Warriors are all set to become “his city’s” team once the divorce papers are final.
Unmentioned in the AM news reports was the fact that this day also happened to be Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the 1865 liberation of African-American slaves in the South at the end of the Civil War.
Doing the math…2015-1865 = 150, meaning this is 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial, of the original Juneteenth. A milestone occasion.
LOS ANGELES 11:00 AM
As I continued my route in the foothills of Oakland, updates began surfacing on social media from SoCal friends who were filming the motorcade of the President of the United States winding past their homes in the narrow residential foothill streets of northeast LA.
Obama comes out west a lot to fundraise, but this is the first time I’ve seen him hit up the working class Highland Park/Eagle Rock neighborhood where my friends live. That area’s gentrification must be proceeding a lot more rapidly than expected, because I couldn’t picture any VIP donor’s home being situated in that zip code. Or maybe Obama was there paying a visit to his alma mater, tiny Occidental College, total enrollment approximately 2,000. (On Sunday I discovered a bit more about what Obama had been doing that morning in Highland Park.)
After winding up my East Bay deliveries around 2 pm, I checked back in on news radio for a traffic report and learned that in the intervening hours while I had delivered a dozen-odd packages over a few zip codes, Obama had flown to San Francisco, spoke at a national symposium and taken his motorcade up to Nob Hill to make a quick fundraising stop at the residence of a venture capitalist, where 30 people had paid $33,400 each for the privilege of having face time with POTUS.
Let’s see…33,400 dollars… multiplied by 30 souls…carry the one…that sounds like a cool million to me. But honestly, in San Francisco, a million bucks is more like the rounding error of the latest techbro startup than the goal of a presidential fundraiser. The presidential security detail probably cost over half that, not to mention the opportunity cost to all the people who were inconvenienced when the streets were shut down so POTUS could get from the airport to some venture capitalist’s lair in the center of town. A million bucks hardly seems worth the trouble.
The national symposium that brought Obama to the Bay was the Conference of Mayors at the Moscone Center, where he was welcomed by SF mayor Ed Lee, still warm from his Warriors victory parade appearance earlier that day. From there, Obama would go over the Golden Gate and spend the night doing more fundraising in Marin. So, in that context the 15-minute million-dollar Nob Hill pit stop made perfect logistical sense, especially since he doesn’t have to worry about parking or even stopping for red lights.
SAN FRANCISCO 6:00 PM
The Warriors, Obama, the conference of mayors, this was all background noise for the day’s main event, which was to take place in the San Francisco Civic Center Plaza later that evening and had been steadily previewed on my Facebook feed by the man who was putting on the show, Chuck Prophet.
City Hall 100, the event was being called. Each day for the two weeks or so leading up to it, Prophet would provide a link to the music of one of the acts that would be playing, as well as a few paragraphs reminiscing about where he and that band (or their music) crossed paths. All in all, the effect was to create a huge buzz around City Hall 100 and a feeling that it would be an unprecedented, and perhaps unrepeatable, convergence of talent, personality, and history.
I don’t usually get excited about live events like this until it’s too late, but this time I was ready.
Friday the Juneteenth marked the first weekend of summer, which meant City Hall 100 had the honor of being the event that kicked off the 2015 festival season. The Gay Pride weekend would come seven days later, and would be greatly enhanced by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision announced Friday June 26 legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. But that announcement, like the parade, was still a week away.
June 19th was two days shy of the summer solstice, so at 6 pm there was tons of daylight left in the Civic Center Plaza. It was more afternoon than evening, and fog-free to boot.
Civic Center Plaza is San Francisco’s great public space. The palatial city hall it abuts only adds to the grandeur. “That’s quite a building,” a first-time Midwestern visitor once told me. “It looks more like a state capital than a city hall.”
Leave it to someone with a pair of fresh eyes to see what my own jaded eyes couldn’t. Yes, this is the city hall of a metropolis that thinks of itself as the center of its own universe, a place that calls itself “The City” as if it was calling itself “The World,” with no sense of irony or apology, despite the fact that “The City” is not even the biggest city in the Bay Area (that would be San Jose), and is surrounded by such provincial backwaters as Oakland, Berkeley, and Palo Alto.
My Midwestern friend’s comment was tinged with a bit of puzzlement though, because while he noted the colossal architecture, he saw it surrounded by homeless tents and thieves markets, and used as an open-air latrine.
That’s how I knew the Civic Center Plaza, too. But when San Francisco is in event mode, the plaza transforms into the city’s great public space. This is our Wenceslas Square, should we ever need one, which hasn’t been the case since the White Night protest of 1979. That particular act of civil disobedience came about as a result of events that transpired within the City Hall building itself in the well-known story of former Supervisor Dan White sneaking a gun in through a remote ground-floor window to avoid the metal detectors, whereupon he ambushed and killed Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, after which a visibly shaken Dianne Feinstein made her national debut announcing the two men’s deaths to a throng of stunned reporters.
That was a seminal moment in San Francisco history, but usually the City Hall events are music (or same-sex wedding) related. For most of the 2000s, I lived at the far end of Civic Center Plaza, so I heard everything, and saw much of it, too. I saw Devo play a jam-packed lunchtime concert. I saw what had to be some sort of Summer of Love 35th anniversary show in 2002, in which everybody from Quicksilver Messenger Service to Sons of Champlin played for what turned out to be a surprisingly small crowd, and where, from the stage, Arthur Lee of Love peered out at the subdued faces before him and said with bewilderment, “Man, this is the quietest San Francisco crowd I’ve ever seen.”
Arthur Lee was onto something back then in 2002. He was witnessing the new post-Dotcom San Francisco, and it’s only gotten worse.
City Hall 100 was ostensibly a celebration of the San Francisco City Hall structure itself, a Beaux Arts colossus whose dome surpasses the US Capitol’s by 42 feet, and whose construction marked San Francisco’s first new city hall since the last one had been destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake. The 1915 completion date marked a successfully realized desire to have a brand new hall up and running in time to be showcased at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of that year.
All this may be notable to historians and preservationists, but the real reason people came out to City Hall on this June 2015 evening was not for events that happened 100 years ago, but for what started 50 years ago when San Francisco entered the rock and roll era: People were there for the live music.
What’s notable is that none of the classic San Francisco festival bands were there–no Airplane, Santana, Grateful Dead, Journey, Metallica–none of the platinum selling acts that are synonymous with the city. No Huey Lewis & the News either. This night was for the others, bands who either just missed or weren’t even close to making it onto one of the commercially canonized soundtracks of the Summer of Love, Haight, or anything else narrated by Peter Coyote.
What you had this night was a roster of musicians who were every bit as influential in their time as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers were, and are equally woven into the San Francisco tapestry, but whose life arcs more resembled those of workaday San Franciscans rather than the rock and roll gentry. Maybe this is how local musicians were always meant to be before the freak accident of Sixties culture turned some of them into demigods for a couple of decades.
Mayor Ed Lee was hobnobbing in Oakland with the Warriors. Barack Obama was doing a dine and dash on Nob Hill. The Bay Area was being bought and sold behind closed doors. In the meantime, Chuck Prophet and friends had taken over the public space surrounding City Hall for the evening.
Prophet is an interesting figure to watch. To some, he’s the 20-something lead guitarist of the seminal 80s West Coast band Green on Red. To others, he’s the constantly touring singer-songwriter and bandleader of the Mission Express. To still others, he is the current torchbearer of the once great and always legendary Bay Area music scene, co-writing brilliant songs about San Francisco and these angsty times with his lyrical collaborator, San Francisco poet Kurt Lipschutz (aka klipschutz).
Artistically, Chuck Prophet is like one of the Traveling Wilburys minus the wall of platinum records. His songwriter’s tool belt has more Freedom Rock hooks than Henry Blake’s fishing hat on 8-track. Like the Wilburys, Prophet gives the impression of someone who’s played every note, toured every city, and at the end of the day is happiest just writing songs and swapping road stories with his group of musical peers.
Prophet is good in interviews and on-air appearances, and as anyone who reads the status updates on the Chuck Prophet Official Facebook page knows, he’s a got a natural flair for journalism, the rock and roll kind in particular.
And now, he may have established his bona fides as a rock and roll impresario as well. I attended City Hall 100 event strictly as a participant (i.e. audience member), so I wasn’t taking notes or doing research. My hands were reserved for holding social lubricants only, so I can’t be 100% sure of what I did or didn’t see up on that stage. It all happened so fast and fluidly.
SAN FRANCISCO 6:45-9:00 PM
A roster of talent too large to name ended up sharing the stage for two 45-minute sets. The Mission Express, Chuck Prophet’s touring group, served as the house band while individual singers and players rotated in and out for their guest numbers. I’m talking about people like Penelope Houston, Roy Loney, Jello Biafra, and Debora Iyall, along with members of Malo, Translator, the Beau Brummels, plus the Kingston Trio. Additionally, there was a string section and a gospel choir that tag-teamed in and out of the numbers onstage so smoothly that you didn’t even see them coming or going. And by the way, was that Ben Fong Torres emceeing the event?
No one from the Jefferson Airplane or Big Brother & the Holding Company was in the lineup that night, but their Summer of Love anthems were performed by people who were. I believe Steffi Finch, keyboardist of the Mission Express handled the vocals on White Rabbit, and honestly I can’t remember who sang Another Piece of My Heart to close out the first set, but it was also good.
Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels was there. The Beau Brummels were a local band who struck radio gold back in the pre-psychedelic era of January 1965, with a couple of folk-rock hits called “Laugh Laugh” and “Just a Little.” The Kingston Trio were on the charts even before that.
The musicians onstage that night were not performers who had the kind of early and sustained success that allowed them to buy houses in the pricy Bay Area real estate market and start growing nest eggs. These are people who probably still rent, who in middle age are subject to the whims of a capricious housing market. As often as not, when the health problems associated with the onset of middle age start flaring up, they need to hold benefit shows to help with the expenses because they don’t have great insurance. As such, these musicians really represent the story of San Francisco as it is today, with its drastic sense of displacement and new order of haves and have-nots.
It was an evening of wish fulfillments and unexpected surprises (Penelope Houston waiting in the beer line), a chance to see acts you never thought you’d get a chance to see, at least not in this century (Kingston Trio, Translator), the kind of mix and match lineups of talent that usually only happen in All-Star Games. So much was happening all at once that there was no point trying to keep score.
As often happens in situations like this, a moment will occur when everything else melts away as one figure fills the stage and seems to be singing directly to you.
That is what happened when Mark Kozelek from Sun Kil Moon stepped up to the microphone for “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes.” As if on cue, the sky seemed to change color, with the clear blue daylight being redacted by San Francisco’s trademark anarchist smoke bomb colored haze.
This dronish dirge got right down to business. The truth of San Francisco is that it is a much, much darker place than the heavily edited Monterey Pop footage could ever indicate. The Monterey Pop film was the result of a slick L.A. production team, and so was all the Summer of Love stuff that followed. “Be sure to wear a flower in your hair” was the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” of San Francisco, a song written by East Coast carpetbaggers to sell West Coast fantasy to people living in Central Time.
Big Brother and the Airplane did not originate at a Big Sur retreat. The San Francisco they emerged from was scary, dirty, rough around the edges and teeming with drunken sailors. And in the Seventies it only got worse. “Richard Ramirez Died Today” both chronicles and embodies this dark chapter of San Francisco history, which includes the Zodiac and Zebra Killers, the S.L.A., Milk and Moscone (shout out to City Hall), plus the People’s Temple. The song emphasizes the fact that despite achieving infamy in L.A., Ramirez actually got his terrible start right here in the Tenderloin, a place where despite his freakish demeanor he could blend right in and disappear.
“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” also plunges into the evening’s subliminal theme, the natural causes part–what happens when middle age catches up with the cocksure spirit of Ramone-haired rock n rollers.
This song is the 2015 version of “I read the news today, oh boy.” While everyone worshipped the Sgt. Pepper album as the clarion call of a new San Francisco-centered age, “Richard Ramirez” is a much more realistic portrait of what a day in the life of this city was really all about.
The narrator of “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” with his nagging prostate and dying peers, makes a very relatable older and wiser bookend to the headband wearing waif of 48 summers ago who trips out on newspaper headlines, would love to turn you on, and is probably kicking around a hackysack somewhere in the Panhandle right now.
City Hall 100 also featured a jazz stage hosted by Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, in addition to a state-of-the-art light show afterwards. Mayor Ed Lee might have even put in a quick appearance, but I saw none of this. I was waiting in the beer line during the jazz stage performances, and received an urgent phone call requiring me to leave the venue before the light show began. But I was able to enjoy the set closer, an extended version of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” with all the evening’s performers onstage together as one being led by Sly Stone’s actual daughter(?). Sly Stone is one of the fathers of San Francisco’s unique and celebrated music and cultural scene, and he’s still around, out there somewhere, just as remote and inscrutable as ever.
SAN FRANCISCO 9:00 PM TO CLOSING
While Barack Obama, Ed Lee, the nation’s mayors and San Francisco’s venture capitalists all had their appointments with destiny, the everyday people on both sides of the stage at City Hall 100 had just concluded theirs, and nobody wanted it to end just yet because moments like this seem fewer and farther between as time marches on.
San Francisco these days isn’t embodied by port town roughnecks, Sixties free-spirits, or even millennial hipsters. The face of modern San Francisco is that of the venture capitalist and his retinue, people who specialize in acquiring things that add value (the Warriors franchise) and getting rid of things that don’t (long-term rent control tenants).
When I first moved to San Francisco, summers were kicked off with a Friday event much like City Hall 100, in which dozens of makeshift stages were created all up and down Market Street and throughout the downtown area. Hundreds of bands of all kinds played half-hour sets, and strains of amplified music blended with the sounds of the cable cars, taxi horns, and jackhammers for a long afternoon. It was the Critical Mass of the musician. People who worked in offices would come out and enjoy the spectacle, seemingly happy to be reminded of what a special city they lived in. For some reason, that all stopped in the mid-90s.
But for the first time since the ascendance of Internet technology, San Francisco felt that way again at City Hall 100. The local rock n rollers had taken over the streets for a day while the politicians did their evil behind closed doors. And now that it’s all over, the question lingers: Is this City Hall 100 lineup a one off event? A moment in time when an ad hoc contingency of pre-dotcom San Franciscans occupied Civic Center Plaza in a symbolic statement against the city’s drastically changing character? Or could it become a regular gig?
Time, and perhaps Chuck Prophet, will tell what the future for San Francisco holds in these uncertain days. Once again, hats off to Chuck for putting together and pulling off this amazing and ambitious evening just when San Francisco could really use it the most. Chuck Prophet is a rock and roll survivor whose best work may yet be ahead of him. Let’s hope the same is true for the city of San Francisco.