TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL: A San Francisco Masterpiece

“The Left Hand & the Right Hand.”

Throughout this album, Prophet subtly tweaks your equilibrium by combining downbeat lyrics with upbeat melodies and vice versa. “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” takes it to the macro level.

It starts with the instrumentation. There is a jangly 12-string guitar out in front of the mix, while a keyboard holds down a soaring power-chord interval in the background. Then the bass guitar falls in with an irresistible ska riff. I’ve never heard a bass hoist up its Ray-bans and wink at a pretty girl before (that’s usually the guitar’s purview), but this is what that sounds like.

So what exactly is this happy tune all about, then? Why, porn mogul Jim Mitchell fatally shooting his brother Artie in the face, of course!

But not only that. Prophet prefaces the song by saying it’s also about rock and roll siblings Phil and Don Everly, Ray and Dave Davies, Phil and Dave Alvin, and perhaps a few others. It’s about brothers who climb their way to the top together and the feuding that tears them all the way back down.

The Mitchell Brothers themselves were a San Francisco institution, as was their O’Farrell Theatre, which still exists at the corner of O’Farrell and Polk on the edge of the Tenderloin.  When Chuck Prophet intro’d “The Left Hand & the Right Hand” at the Mar. 30 Great American Music Hall show, he made sure to point out that the Mitchell Brothers’ theater sits right next door to the Great American. You could tell he wanted to delve into more of the song’s backstory (ditto for several other numbers) but cut himself short to get to the music and give the people what they wanted. Even the truncated flashbacks were enough to show that Prophet is living the album while he’s playing it, which is always good.

By the way, Jim and Artie Mitchell were more than just a couple of sleaze merchants. San Francisco’s modern counterculture history begins in 1956 when the proprietors of City Lights bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao defeated the obscenity charges leveled against them for publishing and distributing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and the city has never looked back. The Mitchell Brothers successfully carried San Francisco’s anti-authoritarian torch in the 1970s, fighting off the numerous attempts to close them down on obscenity charges, and becoming a cause celebre among San Francisco’s illuminati along the way.

Now would be a good place to pause and admire just how well this song functions as a three-act play.

Act I:

The left hand and the right hand shared a cigarette” begins the first verse. Jim and Artie Mitchell were two local yokels who got into the adult film business almost by accident and soon found themselves sitting atop an empire akin to Bill Graham with the Fillmore and its associated production company.

The Mitchell Bros. made it big together; and what you did in the Jackie Susanne era after making it together (big or otherwise) was you shared a cigarette.

They were seen together everywhere, everywhere they went. And when you passed them on the street they always took the time to wave hello,” the verse concludes. Much is conveyed in these eight measures. The brothers were successful; they were men about town; they liked to see and be seen together; they took the time to wave hello. Ain’t life grand?

But in Act II the plot thickens.

They stood up for each other the way true brothers do/ And when the left hand lost a thumb the right cut his off too.

Cutting off thumbs? That is a whole other level of brotherhood, the kind you can’t ever just walk out on.

The second act continues into the next verse:

The left hand and the right hand, they grew apart./One day it was separate checks, the next day bodyguards.

And the years flew by like birds of prey/Not a single word between those two.

The years flew by like birds of prey.” A harbinger of death if ever there was one. Why hasn’t this line been used in a lyric before? The imagery sounds even better when sung against the dreamlike and decidedly non-predatory sound-bed put down by the Mission Express.

Act III kicks off behind the curtain. We don’t actually see what happens between Artie and Jim. Instead, we are led wordlessly across an instrumental bridge that brings the song’s key up a whole-step.

This modulation is the first clue that we’ve ascended into some sort of afterworld. Another clue is that the celestial keyboard (or is it a pitch-shifted guitar?) interval we heard buried in the mix earlier in the song now emerges at the forefront, like the high notes of a cathedral pipe-organ charioting us skyward to eternity as the other instruments fall back.

The curtain is then pulled back to reveal the coda of this three-act play:

Now they’re back together, still at each other’s throats/breaking strings and dropping beats, singing all of the wrong notes/but no one can harmonize the way those brothers do

Indeed, the brothers are back together again, harmonizing in peace. When Jim died in 2007, he was buried right next to his brother, Artie.

(NOTE: About the second or third listen through I finally notice the handclaps, which are too intricate and carefully placed to be purely incidental in a song about the relationship between a left hand and a right hand.)

“I Felt Like Jesus”

After the high-profile epics about Willie Mays and the Mitchell Brothers, “I Felt Like Jesus” is a romp through San Francisco’s back pages. We get econo here. We go from baseball stadiums and strip club empires to a dive bar “on 16th Street in the heart of the heart of the city. In the backroom of a bar called The Albion.”

The claim to the Albion being in the heart of the heart of the city checks out on at least two levels. Firstly, the heart of Generation X-era San Francisco was the Mission, the heart of the Mission was 16th Street, and the heart of 16th Street was the Albion.

It will always be the Albion.

It will always be the Albion.

The Mission is also the heart of the City’s legitimate history. This is where the original indigenous inhabitants lived and where the first European colonizers drove in stakes.  The iconic Mission Dolores itself, the City’s oldest intact structure, sits just one and a half blocks up 16th Street from the Albion.

What’s more, the original Mission chapel built by the Spanish was located a block and a half east of the currently preserved Mission Dolores building, which places it 70 paces from the back room of the Albion bar, straight down alley-sized Albion Street. That’s about as close to the heart of the city as you can get without treading on a ventricle.

“I Felt Like Jesus” picks up where “Temple Beautiful” left off.  It’s ten years later and the kid who made the crossroads bargain back at the Geary St. punk club now struts the Mission in skinny jeans. This young man and his Squire guitar own the backroom of the Albion, where he “make(s) a Princeton (amp) sing like a house on fire, for anyone.”

As part of the original bargain, he had to give up the girl to get the gig. But now he’s got the gig and also seems to be getting the girl.

Cue the chorus:

I smelled danger every time that you walked by/ I felt like Jesus when you looked me in the eye.

That line places you right there in the action, sitting at a barstool while the girl you’ve been checking out all day meets your gaze and finally saunters by slowly enough to let you catch a whiff of her danger. That’s the kind of beer commercial we all want to be in.

In the final verse, the action shifts abruptly to Chinatown. This is a hard cut that is pure San Francisco, where you can surrealistically hop on BART at Sixteenth Street and hop off two stops later, going from the Mission to Chinatown in an Allen Ginsberg minute.

You arrive to see a dragon emerging from the Broadway Tunnel. You instinctively reach for the camera, but just as quickly put it down. Right then, “the last beatnik on earth” taps you on the shoulder and you turn around.

This verse resounds on a personal level. My own establishing moments in San Francisco happened on those downtown-adjacent streets, taking in the spectacle while realizing there’s no way to capture its fullness in a texture as flat as film or notebook paper. You have to do this alone, unfortified. (For me, it was the Stockton Tunnel rather than the Broadway Tunnel, but I did encounter a last beatnik on earth or two making the rounds down there).

This moment in the album captures a crisp photo sequence of something rarely seen by the naked eye: the passing of the torch from beatnik laureate to new kid. There you are: You’ve found your way into the magic maw of San Francisco; the instinct to snap a picture like any awestruck visitor would do is strong. Instead, you put the camera down and let the streets pull you in. You’re not here for a tour, you’re here for good. Somehow, San Francisco’s last beatnik finds you there and taps you in.

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