No Cal Report

I went to northern California and all I brought back was this report. This past week, the wife and I went to San Francisco and Mendocino. I’d spent a week in San Francisco in April enjoying Willie Nelson at the Fillmore Ballroom and had forgotten how great a city it is; the last time I’d been there was 16 years ago when I interviewed Angela Strehli and chased down Bill Campbell for the Stevie Ray Vaughan book.

So the wife and I went west for some coolness in the spirit of Mark Twain, who once observed the coldest winter he’d ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, and to check out the north coast village where my ol’ buddy Sir Doug Sahm observed in his 1969 hit single “life is such a groove you’ll blow your mind in the morning.” (The same song also refers to a “teeny-bopper, teen-aged lover,” which revealed in song to Doug’s wife back home in San Antonio that her old man was chipping on her.)

The weather was superb – upper 60s in San Fran and Mendocino during the day, low 50s at night, lots of fog, no AC necessary, although jackets and sweaters were. I also rediscovered the joys of microclimates in NoCal. Parts of San Francisco, like Clay Street in Chinatown where Andy Lesko has his chiropractic clinic and art gallery and studio, are ten degrees warmer than the area around Haight and Fillmore where we stayed with our friend, the writer Sylvie Simmons. In a matter of an hour of driving from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County north of San Francisco to Mendocino on the coast, the temp dropped from 97 to 67. You pick your heat this time of year.

Sylvie put us up in her Victorian and showed us around her neighborhood, serenaded us with her Ukulele skills and entertained us with stories about Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Serge Gainsbourg -- all subjects she has written about extensively; she recently interviewed Spinal Tap on the environment in conjunction with the Live Earth concert for the BBC’s Radio Times (the rockers are tree-huggers, it turns out) and pointed out Jack’s Records where Tom Waits shops when I noticed Chris Strachwitz standing out front with filmmakers Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon, who are doing a documentary of Chris, America’s premier folk music record label. It turns out Chris started Arhoolie in the basement of Jack’s (his rent was 15 albums a month) more than 40 years ago so they were filming where it all began.

This is the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love where the hippie thing started in Haight-Ashbury and we could tell, since the famous intersection, now dominated by a Ben & Jerry’s was jammed with tourists and parking spaces were non-existent for blocks. I like the lower Haight more these days anyhow.

The premium on parking is intentional. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods made for walking (not a whole lot of jug butts in the City) with plenty of mass transit and a strong European flavor, about as good as an urban environment gets in the United States, which is one reason it’s so dang expensive. Everyone wants to be there.

Plus, the Muir Woods and Muir Beach are just across the Golden Gate with incredible scenery laced with hiking trails and really incredible majestic redwood forests farther north, and literally hundreds of wineries in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties in between. All in all, it’s the kind of place where life really is such a groove that you’ll blow your mind in the morning with or without help from some of the highest-quality homegrown marijuana in the world.

After two days on the coast in and around Mendocino where our friends gave us an insider’s lay of the land (basically, the groovers are being slowly squeezed out by a wealthier class led by the dot com crowd) we stayed on the Oakland side of the Bay with old friends Michael Goodwin and Jennifer Oliver. Mike was our introductory guide to SF thirty some odd years ago when we stayed at his old place by Golden Gate Park. Now he lives on the other side, right by what used to be the old Nimitz freeway that was destroyed by the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, where the old ‘hood has been spruced up considerably.

Earthquakes are not such a groove, although they do have the potential of blowing your mind in the morning.

Although we missed out on Sylvie’s home cooking for Eric Drew Feldman (ex Captain Beefheart) and Chuck Prophet (Green on Red) and their mates, here are 30 Hot List highlights of things to do and places to see in NoCal:

*Haight Street west of Fillmore. Sylvie took us to Visit, the new Thai restaurant at 518 Haight St., whose design is as pleasing as the cuisine served (reasonably priced too), although some grousers complain it is too upscale for the neighborhood. Forget the look, grumps; the food is great. The surrounding two blocks have something for everyone -- the new Baghdad 1,001 Nights opens next week (if Vietnamese restaurants are all the rage now, will Iraq eateries be the next post-war foodie trend?), the Vapor Room, a medical marijuana clinic that espouses carbon-neutral methods of taking marijuana (it sure smelled fragrant whenever we walked past), Mediterranean, more Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Ethiopian, Mexican, and Hawaiian restaurants, pizza joints, burger joints, hip cafes, loads of coffee shops, organic bakeries, seedy bars, swank bars, natural food stores, record shops, poster shops, jewelry stores, Hairdo Voodoo, galleries, and semi-normal places specializing in turkey sandwiches, sausages, and beer.

*Guitar Solo, 230 Townsend by the Giants’ ballpark, where Sylvie bought her Flea model uke, is one of the great acoustic guitar stores in the world.

*Lark in the Morning, Mendocino. About as full-service a stringed instrument and percussion music store as I’ve seen.

*DeYoung Fine Arts Museum, Golden Gate Park. The art inside is pretty great. The building that contains it, which sort of resembles a big chocolate dessert with a hard-shell exterior and mousse on the inside, is even better.

* Chinatown. It’s the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia and full of Chinese who live, eat, shop and work there. One of the few Chinatowns were the locals outnumber the tourists.

*Bombay Ice Creamery, Valencia Street. On a street packed with great taquerias, Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese and Thai, and even a French joint so cool there’s no sign out front, the Bombay rules with some of the finest ice cream and most exotic flavors anywhere. Do try the Rose Petal and saffron pistachio flavors. Ain’t ever tasted anything like ‘em.

*The Golden Gate bridge. Because it’s there. $5 to enter the San Francisco side or you can walk or bike across for free. The views from the Marin County side are better than postcards.
*Muir Woods. Redwoods less than a half hour from the Marina District. $3 entry, parking in the summer and especially on weekends is a bitch. The main trail is paved and flat; I saw a woman do it in heels. The trails above offer better views and fewer people. The Muir beach, a couple miles away, offers an easy slice of the rugged California coast.

*4.2 Earthquake which on Sylvie’s 3d floor apartment felt like living next to a freeway when a big ass truck rumbles past. I knew it was a quake because I’d been in one in Mexico City and in a temblor in Antigua, Guatemala. Thankfully, it was brief and only a 4.2 magnitude according to a guy at the coffee shop the next morning who said he knows these things. Maureen Gosling who lives on the east side of the bay closer to the quake’s epicenter, told us she thought it was the Big One. But it wasn’t. Kris slept through it.

* “San Francisco Nights” by Eric Burdon. The lyrics are kinda goofy, especially where Burdon sings about “warm San Francisco nights” which don’t happen, but the beatnik groove more accurately captures the city vibe than Scott MacKenzie’s insipid advice to wear flowers in your hair “if you’re going, to San Fran-cisco.” I was humming it in my head all week.

*Clarion Alley between Mission and Valencia Street near 17th Street. Street mural after street mural, most all the artwork interesting and artful as well as punk and political, most reflecting the city’s and Cali’s underappreciated Latin street soul.

*Mission Dolores church, 16th and Dolores. The 1918 vintage basilica next door catches the eye, but it’s the smaller squat, adobe-walled slice of New Spain next door that is the oldest building in SF, completed in 1786, and California’s oldest original church. This is where the Bay Area began. Despite SF’s rep as Babylon by the Bay, there are a surprising number of old, beautiful churches throughout the city.

*The hustle and hum of Valencia Street on a Saturday night. One of the best street scenes in the city and one of the few that is practically devoid of pretension.

*The Out of the Closet thrift store on Church Street across from the Safeway in the heart of Noe Valley, one of the gayest parts of Gay San Francisco just down the block from the Gay Dog Park. Don’t know about the merch, but the name fits the place.

*Jack’s Record Cellar, 254 Scott, Lower Haight. A real, real old record shop, established in 1951 and the birthplace of Arhoolie Records, featuring vintage rock, blues, jazz and big band platters in 78, 45 and LP formats. Not as splendidly cluttered as Music 101 in North Beach, but still…..Say Hi to Roy Loney, an exquisite rocker in his day, who sometimes works the counter.

*Tommy’s, Geary Street, between 23d and 24th. I don’t do Mexican food in Cali normally because the best of US Mex is here in Tex. But Chris Strachwitz invited us to Tommy’s, which has been doing the real deal comida Mexicana since 1965 and I was converted by the huachinango mojo de ajo broiled red snapper, the variety of salsas, and yeah, the margaritas too.

*Alamo Square Park, Steiner and Hayes streets, one of the best free hilltop views in SF and surrounded by some of the most stunning Victorians in the city including the same row you see in advertisements and tourist brouchures.

*Boulevard, in the Embarcadero downtown at Mission and Stueart by the Ferry Plaza at the head of a restaurant row. This is my friend Mike’s favorite restaurant largely due to his history with chef Nancy Oakes. Sorta French in vibe and design but with culinary emphasis on American regional cuisine, Boulevard is sleek, stylish, and expensive. I can recommend the pork tenderloin, the rack of lamb, the wines and the various presentations of ‘taters, and beets and French beans and crab and ginger salads.

*Visitor Center, Fourth Street, just west of Highway 101 in the old train station, Santa Rosa. This is the best place to get maps and the lay of the land to the 200 wineries in the heart of California wine country. Our hostess hipped us to Ferrari-Cabrera Winery for its English garden, which was as impressive as the chateau and the wine, and the nearby Luther Burbank Gardens. The bigger wineries charge for tastings these days but one not-so-pretentious winery, Hook and Ladder in Santa Rosa, whose wine we sampled in Mendocino, did not. The tasting room was nothing fancy but the product was excellent.

*Luther Burbank Gardens, Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues, Santa Rosa. Before Charles Schulz of Peanuts comics fame, Luther was the most famous resident. The father of modern horticulture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he developed the spineless cactus among other botanical wonders. The acre of gardens surrounding his house showcase his work on roses, grasses, medicinal herbs, and fruits.

*Jimtown Store, northeast of Santa Rosa in the heart of Alexander Valley, Healdsburg, was a community store once upon a time that has morphed into a pit stop on the wine trail featuring some of the best gourmet sandwiches and wine in the world. I went for the special sausage number Goodbye Sopranos while Kris got down on a grilled cheese and poblano number. Brie and chopped olive and grilled eggplant and provolone are among the other house specialties, all under $10. The wine was fine.

*Paddling the Big River, Mendocino. A scenic river trip by the sea up and down a wide river valley flanked by redwoods and hardwoods by the sea with a sighting of a pair of otters who paid us no mind. We rented an outrigger canoe especially designed for the Big from Catch A Canoe & Bicycles Too for $50 for two hours. (707-937-0273)

*Hiking the Little River, Mendocino, taking the Fern Canyon Trail in Van Damme State Park, two miles south of Mendocino. A wonderful two hour hike along a babbling salmon stream into a primordial redwood forest choked with ferns. Cali’s state parks are a tad nicer than those in Texas.

*Walking the moors by Mendocino town to the beach. Giant waves crashing into the rocks, sea caves below a sweeping grass highlands straight out of Scotland was otherworldly.

*Patterson’s Pub, Lansing St.,Mendocino. Where the locals hang (some guy was doing pushups on the floor when we walked in) and drink fine handcrafted beers, $3.50 for a half pint. Solid selection of local wines and imported whiskeys and spirits, too. The garlic fries rock. Sports on TV if you need it.

*The Olive Bar at Harvest at Mendosa’s, next door to Patterson’s Pub, Mendocino. Watching the longhair semi-street person wearing a widebrim hat and trenchcoat in the summer, eating at the olive bar when no one was looking reminded me why I don’t do olive bars in groceries, no matter how organic they are.

*Moosse Café, Kasten Street, Mendocino. Impeccable service, sumptuous cuisine (the North Coast seafood cioppino was sublime) with an emphasis on local and organic offerings, in a warm, intimate setting. Easily worth the splurge.

*Nellie’s, 1155 3d St. Oakland. Soul food in the classic sense, fried chicken, meatloaf, smothered steak, yams, greens, and good grease included.

*The Albany Bulb, Albany Waterfront Park, just north of Golden Gate Fields, East Bay.
Mike took us on a drive up the East Bay on San Pablo Avenue through Berkeley up to a former dump site overlooking the bay once favored by the homeless and now a hangout for dog walkers. There we discovered the gallery of Sniff painted on boards, driftwood, trash, and other found objects. Sniff is/was an art collective that painted in the Albany Bulb, as the point is called, from 1998 to 2006. It was real deal art, with a carny, circus tent sideshow aesthetic, and hellish themes straight out of Hieronymous Bosch.

Themes depicted people and devils underwater, in lowrider land, atop the girders of skyscrapers in SF with two images of the Transamerica Pyramid, one depicting the skyscraper almost complete, the other a mirror image, in rooms of the Seeside Motel, a hottub, a couple playing strip Scrabble, a bus driving through the countryside full of people who resembled the Diablo ceramic figurines from Ocumicho, Mexico, a perverse Christmas scene, and in a movie theatre where the audience was looking not at the stage but at the viewer of the art, and in a boxing ring. .

Many were of a sadistic nature with decapitated heads, people falling, and other weirdness.

One piece that was a roulette wheel titled Step Right Up To The Wheel of Life and another board depicting a convict and a pretty girl with cut out heads for souvenir photos suggested a carnival sensibility bolstered by the renderings of the figures. All that was missing was a two-headed calf or a monkey boy. A woman’s face was painted on a pipe and entire scenes were painted inside the decking of a rowboat, in a concrete bunker, and on concrete blocks.

Huge sculptures of found objects littered the site, some intact, some vandalized or fallen down. Yarrow weed covered some pieces. Others were weathered or destroyed, some by the elements, some by intent.

More than one painting included messages that placed a curse on vandals with one piece depicting a member of the Sniff collective chopping off the head of a destroyer of the art.
Four whirligigs of found metal objects projected more spiritual themes.

Little details like David Hockney sitting on a bench and the card David Hockney vs the Maestro in the boxing ring scene was a new variation of the Andy Warhol vs the Maestro mano a mano standoff talked about by the Maestro, the self-taught Bay Area artist featured in a film documentary by Les Blankgoing head to head with the British artist by way of LA showed whoever Sniff was/is knows their art.

On the frame of another scene, someone left the graffiti message: “James Dobson Says Sniff is the Focus on the Manson Family.”

I googled Sniff and the Albany Bulb and found that the Sniff collective was four artists who met in a figure drawing class - David Ryan, Scott Meadows, and Scott Hewitt of Oakland and Bruce Rayburn of El Sobrante. All are friends who have day jobs. Three have art degrees. Another Sniff, Osha Neumann, is representing Sniff in court where Albany and the California parks system are seeking to tear down the art for a state park. .

You can see the art yourself by following these links:

*The wisteria in bloom and the ripe plums in Mike and Jennifer’s backyard. Woody Guthrie called California the garden of eden where you can sleep out every night. Now I know why.

That said, it's sure good to be back home.

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