TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL: A San Francisco Masterpiece

“He Came From So Far Away (Red Man Speaks)”

Probably my favorite song on the album.

I moved to the Mission after living in two other San Francisco neighborhoods. The contrast–in weather, temperament, and the intangibles–was stunning. The sidewalks may have been grungy in the Mission, but the streets were bathed in warm light, and every block brought the thrill of new discovery, highlighted by spotting the Red Man making his rounds along Valencia St.

This spectral figure, part Salvador Dali/part Underwood Deviled Ham guy, darting in and out of Valencia doorways, seemed perfectly attuned to and emblematic of this new neighborhood. He was both accepted and left alone, just like everyone else.

For a decade, the Mission was my refuge from the American culture of success and happiness, and Red Man was the daily reminder that I was in the right place.

I saw what I wanted to see in him and didn’t look much further. I saw the Chaplinesque character flitting in and out of doorways, dandying up the neighborhood, and I took for granted that he would always be there painting himself and the town red, and rarely bothered to wonder what was really going on inside.

You don’t put on that make-up and costume in public unless you intend to be noticed, and yet, the Red Man seemed acutely agoraphobic. If greeted too effusively, he practically turned and fled. He covered a lot of ground throughout his day, but always as a mime stuck inside an invisible box, able to see and be seen, yet powerless to break through the wall that kept him forever apart.

“Red Man Speaks” is a poignant “what-if,” a slightly re-imagined universe where Red Man does manage to connect with his chosen tribe. The real Red Man’s story probably doesn’t resolve with him being embraced by a flock of children and led into the light like Richard Dreyfuss boarding the mothership with gentle aliens in Close Encounters, but in this Chuck Prophet/Kurt Lipschutz universe, Red Man’s story is allowed to end this way.

The song kicks off with a 25-second instrumental swell of tickled ivory and plucked strings; the gentle sound of toys in the attic. It is the sound you’d hear halfway into a tall afternoon drink at the Latin American Club if you looked up from your barstool to inspect the daylight falling on the high-ceilinged, curio-laden walls.  This is where Red Man liked to hang out when I arrived in the neighborhood.

The sweetest element of this gentle Mission backbeat ballad is the call and response lyric that shares the song’s title billing with Red Man himself: “He Came From So Far Away.”

He came from so far away/he had a telephone without a number

He came from so far away/I never saw him drink a drop of water

These are the first lyrics in the song, and they ring very true. There was a legend that Red Man was never seen drinking water. And the telephone without a number? Do I remember him carrying around an old black telephone, or am I recalling one of the curios on the wall of the Latin American club? Or, am I simply thinking of the business phone at Tu Lan?

He came from so far away/He kept a picture of a pigeon in his wallet

He kept a picture of a pigeon in his wallet. Is there a more perfect sentence to portray a man who lives alone in public places?

These descriptions of the Red Man seem to be the work of a poet. And who but a poet would think to ask if the autumn leaves turn gold or brown (back in the track “Castro Halloween”) or come up with the perfect meter and 3-2-1 imagery of “three on, two out, under the lights?” in “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat?”

According to the liner notes, all songs on “Temple Beautiful” were written by Chuck Prophet and Kurt Lipschutz. Prophet described the writing sessions for the album as the two of them sequestered in a tiny SOMA crawl-space of an office with a floor full of crumpled up paper. It’s impossible to know who wrote what exactly, but the subtle touches of a full-time lyricist/poet seem to be in evidence throughout the album.

Kurt Lipschutz is the silent partner in this collaboration, but he might just be the secret spice that makes the horchata sparkle.

“Little Girl, Little Boy”

“Little Girl, Little Boy” is a two minute tub-thump on the evergreen subject of young love. This is a duet between Chuck Prophet and Stephie Finch, the keyboardist in the Mission Express, who has a catalogue of solo work and musical collaborations of her own. Prophet and Finch are a real life rock ‘n roll couple, married for some time, and usually seen playing in each other’s bands.

By rock standards, “Little Girl, Little Boy” is a refreshingly innocent courtship: Darla and Alfalfa, two straws, one milkshake.

Innocent in appearance perhaps, but by no means naïve. They seem to be heading towards a kiss, but they do so with eyes wide open. Their verbal foreplay centers on the ugliness of the real world, where doctors get diseases, criminals make bail, and potential lovers have to give winning sales pitches before they get the green light.

The song only lasts for two verses, but that’s all it needs. He’s taken a couple of good swings and hasn’t yet reached base, but he sure hasn’t struck out either. He’s one pitch away from making contact in what feels like a hitter’s count, and everybody’s rooting for them to score, even Willie Mays perhaps.

“White Night, Big City”

The song sounds flattened, compressed, detached, as if watching the riots on a 1979 TV screen and hearing it through a speaker rather than being there. Every song on “Temple Beautiful” so far has us tasting the City, smelling the City, stepping in the City and scraping the City off our shoes. But we’re indoors now, kicking up our stocking feet, twisting open a cold one and watching the City through the filter of the evening news.

For San Franciscans, the footage of Dianne Feinstein staring misty-eyed into the camera and announcing to audible gasps that George Moscone and Harvey Milk had been shot and killed and that Supervisor Dan White was the shooter was like hearing the news that John Kennedy had been assassinated. You would always remember where you were at that moment, and life would never quite be the same from then on.

The liner notes say that this song is dedicated to the memory of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Yet, the emotional impact of those two’s deaths seems to have been placed way back onto the album’s second track, “Castro Halloween,” whose opening line is a plaintive “When the shots rang out and two men died, you took off your mask just to see me cry…”

It is true that people were shot during the notorious Castro Halloween incidents of recent years, but none fatally. In a San Francisco context, shots ringing out, two men dying and people crying usually means Moscone/Milk.

But by 1979, a year after the killings, people are no longer saddened at that news. Instead they are cynical and outraged by the latest news: That Dan White had been acquitted of murder thanks to the notorious “Twinkie Defense.”

“Castro Halloween” captures the raw emotion of Milk and Moscone’s double-murder, while “White Night Big City” reminds us that revenge is a dish best served cool. “WNBC” starts off calm and collected, and never really breaks into a sweat. Instead, archival audio news footage is fed into the mix, increasing steadily as the song progresses, until the music is entirely subsumed by the audio feed and we are once again in our living rooms, with our feet up and the news on, watching history being made on the streets of San Francisco.

WNBC sounds cool and detached because this song ostensibly about rioters and vandals is actually the story of leveler heads prevailing. The madness wasn’t the actions of the White Night rioters, it was the actions of Dan White. The madness was the successful Twinkie defense as well as the sounds of approval that greeted the verdict in some quarters, not the civil disobedience that followed.

White Night was a measured response to all this madness; a bare-knuckled middle finger served up dry and with an extra twist. Dan White may have taken out two good men in the prime of their lives, but the Castro batted last, and the flag still flies to prove it.

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