TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL: A San Francisco Masterpiece

“Emperor Norton in the Last Year of His Life (1880)”

At long last we reach the album’s finale. We step through the looking glass, movin forward into the past. Deconstructing from color to sepia tones to India ink blots. A century has elapsed in reverse. It’s a bleaker, stripped down San Francisco we encounter now, one that has never heard of Harvey Milk, or Willie Mays or Fatty Arbuckle. Even our young rock and roll couple that strutted the Mission decked out in thrift-store black during the Bush/Quayle years of “I Felt Like Jesus” is now part of the animal soup along with the Red Man and everyone else from our time.  In this tale, the three of them (boy/girl/Redman) have melded into two and reemerged in 1880 as a dancing girl named Sally Rogers and Emperor Norton I in the final days of his earthly reign, acting the part of Miss Rogers’ jealously obsessed, impotent john.

Every set of keys is an original” the story begins, luring us into the narrative by way of a mundane everyday object: a ring of keys. In 1880 much would have been different about San Francisco, but the streets were the same, and the citizenry still carried keys in their pockets to open the creaky Victorians where their lives played out.

Yes, every set of keys is an original. As a matter of fact, so is each person carrying those sets of keys. But in a city like San Francisco, it is the streets and the houses that live on forever as originals, while the people are just extensions of the key rings, opening and closing the doors for a few decades before being replaced by new ones.

Next to float up to the window of our Magic 8 Ball is a lyric that reads like a caption from a grainy, alternate universe San Francisco newsreel: Last night it was snowing down on Market St.

These words would be a full-page headline screaming from the next day’s Examiner should the unlikely event ever occur in our time. But Prophet sneaks this line in as casually as if he were saying, “last night it was raining down on Market St” or “last night I was walking down on Market St.” The matter of factness is what throws us.

This song is a haunted-house mirror reflection of the entire album that preceded it. Laffing Sal, Willie Mays, Harvey Milk, Roy Loney, you, me, the Red Man, we coud all just be illusions, the final deathbed projections of the fertile mind of a celebrated eccentric who died 25 years before the great earthquake of 1906 occurred.

Everything we think we know about this place could just be the delusions bouncing around inside the cranium of San Francisco’s first self-appointed emperor, mocking any fool who would dare to presume the City could have a life of its own extending beyond that of its founding luminary, who passed way back in 1880. Take away all the flesh and blood characters that populate this album (as well as anyone listening to it) and the only genuine thing left of San Francisco after Emperor Norton are the statues in the Museum of Broken Hearts, and possibly the Red Man. 

*  *  *

EmpNortonBy all accounts, that January 1880 day when Joshua Norton collapsed and died at the corner of California and Grant was a miserable one, damped by stormy weather and darkened by the winter solstice.  It was one of those 19th Century act-of-God storms where the sky becomes metallic and an intense barometric pressure overwhelms the faculties, affecting one’s ability to think or act clearly, to distinguish this world from the nether. That’s the mood effectively captured by the Mission Express on the album’s somber set closer.

Emperor Norton I died in 1880, but his life encompassed the entirety of San Francisco’s first three decades as a U.S. city. His backstory is an interesting one. Joshua Abraham Norton arrived in 1849 with the original Forty-Niners as a 30-year old British-born and educated trader. For a short time, he actually owned property on three of the four corners at the intersection of Jackson and Sansome–then as now, in the heart of the Financial District.

Fortunes rose and fell quickly in that Gold Rush decade, and Joshua Norton’s substantial holdings soon dwindled away to nothing.  In 1859, bankrupt and shunned by San Francisco’s high-society, he re-emerged as Emperor Norton I, the City’s first celebrated eccentric, but hardly its last. He lived out his remaining decades in residential hotels, penniless, but able to survive on “tributes” handed out by his local subjects and later on by tourists. Norton was no mere crackpot. He was an educated and verbally gifted man who “came from so far away” to arrive at this frontier boomtown.

Joshua Norton grew up in a post-French Revolutionary European culture where the notion of youthful princes secreted away into humble environs to escape the guillotine only to be rescued and restored to former glory just when despair ran deepest, was a popular one.

Young Joshua Abraham Norton always fancied himself deserving a far greater life than the middling Old World fate he was born into. Like so many others, he set off for the New World to seek his fame and fortune. Once reduced to pauperism, he reinvented himself as Norton I, Emperor of the United States and (added later) Protector of Mexico. He embraced the role to the fullest extent, imperiously strolling the city’s streets in outmoded European military regalia, holding court in public squares among his retinue of loyal subjects, who tended to be the down-and-outers that still fill the City’s public spaces.

Through a series of royal decrees that were issued as press releases and printed in the local papers, Norton offered colorful palliatives on how the USA could cure what ailed it by abandoning republicanism and submitting to his enlightened monarchy. In an era when the USA was fully subsumed in the buildup, fighting, and then aftermath of the Civil War, his utopianism must have struck a sympathetic note among many citizens. Besides, he was as entertaining and verbally gifted as anyone else writing for the local papers. Nor was he shy about using his powers of oratory to dress down insubordinates, such as public servants who dared refer to him as an incompetent or vagrant. As a result, Norton I became San Francisco’s first anti-authoritarian icon, its first celebrated freak.

* * *

“Temple Beautiful” allows us to connect pieces of the City’s landscape and history in many reimagined ways, my favorite of which is probably the Emperor Norton-Redman nexus. Before hearing “Temple Beautiful,” it would never have occurred to me to put these two men into the same thought bubble; but after listening, I can’t help doing just that every time.

The Red Man has been described as Chaplinesque, and so must have been the Emperor all dressed up in his shabby fineries, so intently playing the part.

And then there’s that line, “he came from so far away….” It’s the leitmotif of the Red Man’s song, yet it describes no one on the album so well as Joshua Norton, who came from so far away and so long ago that he wasn’t merely from another hemisphere, but another world entirely.

Joshua Norton was a greatly celebrated figure even in his lifetime, as well as after. You’ve likely heard his name before and maybe even remember a sentence or two of his biography some 130 years after he died. The Red Man, on the other hand, passed on from the City and this world almost unnoticed, until the familia Mission Express decided to include “Red Man Speaks” in the Temple Beautiful anthology, giving this man of the Mission his proper place in the annals of San Francisco history.

And what of the San Francisco that is captured in this album? Is it an ongoing enterprise or has it already been relegated to history? That is the debate that currently rages all around us.

In the Mar. 30 “Forum” interview, Prophet opined that the City reached its cultural nadir in the dotcom era (“money makes people stupid, and it was a white hot economy” was how he put it), but counterpoised that the local music scene did appear to be mounting a comeback of late.

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Prophet sings the City eclectic. (photo courtesy of Raymond Ahner)

Prophet sings the City eclectic. (photo by Raymond Ahner, courtesy of SoundSpike)

San Francisco has always been a city of arresting beauty and charm. From the first day of the Gold Rush until sometime around 1970, it had always been a working class city as well. That’s when the skyline changed: glass and steel towers went up in the first major downtown construction since the stock market crash of 1929.

About that time the port and dock work began migrating over to Oakland. San Francisco became more of a service-based economy. The military footprint on the city shrank as the draft was phased out. For the ensuing decades, you had this curious phenomenon of a highly livable, stunningly beautiful city with no big source of well-paying jobs.

It was only a matter of time before something would come along to correct this disequilibrium in the marketplace and bring the City in line with the laws of supply and demand.

“Someday, this is all gonna be gone,” Chuck Prophet intones at the end of the album’s title track.

Is he talking about the Temple Beautiful club scene, the anonymous characters that populate the album’s 12 tracks, or the gestalt of pre-IT San Francisco itself?

The answer is Yes.

But wherever and whenever “Temple Beautiful” plays, it all comes roaring back.

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