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Posted on Jan 9th, 2009
San Francisco, Gus Van Sant, Haircut


(Soundtrack: Nina Nastasia “The Blackened Air”, Daniel Johnstone “Lost And Found”)
Just before Christmas we visited San Francisco for a few days. We have been there before, but this time really fell in love with it. One reason I think, is that previously we had stayed centrally, on the basis that it is then easy to travel to the groovier areas of town. This time we stayed between the Castro and Haight, where there is a lot of nightlife so we could easily walk home in the evenings. Haight Street still has an air of the 60s and The Grateful Dead about it, and is home to Amoeba, one of the best record shops in the world.
One of the main things we wanted to do this trip was to go and see a film at The Castro, which is a huge cinema from the 20s, completely intact, including a chap rising out of the stage playing a pipe organ before the show. We would have happily seen anything there – we were thinking of an old classic, as they regularly show treats like “All About Eve” or “Blue Velvet”. It is a different experience going to the cinema in the USA, or maybe it is just the West Coast with its movie history – it always seems much more of an event, with the audience getting there early, and likely to respond and applaud during the film. The combination of this and the lovely cinema made it very appealing. We were lucky enough to arrive in town the day before the new Gus Van Sant film “Milk” opened at The Castro, so by getting up early on the Friday morning we were able to bag tickets for it.
Gus Van Sant is one of my favourite directors. I liked “My Own Private Idaho”, “To Die For”, “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forrester”, but it is his run of recent films which is so astonishing: “Gerry”, “Elephant”, “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park” are all stunning. So we were already excited about seeing “Milk”. The film tells the story of Harvey Milk, the openly gay member of the Board Of Supervisors in San Francisco in the 70s, who tirelessly campaigned for gay rights and managed to stop Proposition 6 from going through, which would have prevented gay men or women from teaching in American schools. He was also known as the Mayor of Castro Street – he was based there and the area was, and remains, a centre for the town’s gay community. Most of the film is set in the Castro, so we were going to watch it where the story happened.
As we were getting ready to go out, we noticed a procession going past our hotel. Hundreds of people marching in the dark, each carrying a single candle. We later found out that this was a recreation of the march that occurred after Harvey Milk’s death, and was in honour of his memory and the opening of the movie. When we got to the Castro we had to queue right down and round the block (I took the photo while we queued, though I managed to obscure Sean Penn), and when we got inside it took us a while to get two seats together, ending up really near the front. The place was rammed and the atmosphere electric.
The film is wonderful, and to hear the audience reacting to it was very moving. Several of the characters featured are still active in San Francisco politics today, and to hear them get such heartfelt cheers at the end of the movie brought us to tears. It was an unforgettable experience.
Afterwards we ended up in a bar called Martuni’s, which Bridie has completely fallen in love with. They specialise in Martinis (it was invented in San Francisco), and have a bar at the back where karaoke is sung around a piano – lots of show tunes and flamboyant performances; a brilliant atmosphere. I was gradually getting up the nerve to try a Bacharach song, but never quite made it. Bridie nearly got to do “Under Pressure”, an unusual choice, but the pianist couldn’t remember it.
The next night we went to a Comedy Club called The Punchline, and saw Emo Phillips, who was great: “I had a good German friend of mine to stay recently… I gave him bagels for breakfast… He said “We just can’t get bagels as good as these back in Germany”… I said “Well, who’s fault is that?””
We also walked across the Golden Gate Bridge while we were there. We had done that before, but in the meantime had seen the documentary film “The Bridge”. It is a powerful experience walking to the bridge and over it, and the film, which focuses on it as the suicide capital of the world, added to the sense of… I don’t know what the word is… “power” is probably closest. There is a feeling you get at any major landmark in the world, perhaps something about being in the presense of something which has been there through many generations and is bigger than us, almost a religious quality. The Golden Gate Bridge gives this feeling in an extreme degree: inspiring and unsettling. I would like to write about it at some point.
I singularly failed to meet up with Eric Stephenson while we were there. Eric has put together a book of graphic stories by different artists inspired by 24 Spearmint and Shirley Lee songs. We have been liaising on the project for a couple of years and were hoping to meet for the first time. I wanted to thank Eric in person for everything he has done to make this happen. Every so often somebody has faith in what we do and, believe me, it makes a big difference to us. We had made an arrangment, but thanks to my incompetence with my mobile and the hotel phone, we didn’t get together. I suspect we will return to San Francisco this year though, so hopefully we can meet then.
I went to get a haircut on Tuesday. I thought I had better, with the hideous possibility of job interviews looming. I had intended to go to Colin, who has been the local barber for years. The notice in his window says “I was asked if I was spending Christmas with loved ones. I said “No, just the family.”” He had a sign up last year saying “I will be closed this weekend as I am celebrating 5 years of happily married life. It is our 20th wedding anniversary.” A funny guy. A bit of a local legend. When I went there he asked me if I followed football. I said No. There was a long pause, then he proceeded to talk football at me for the whole haircut, presumably having decided that my input was unnecessary. It was, however, Colin’s first day back after Christmas so I figured he would be busy, hence I went to the newer one round the corner. He can moan for England. Give him a topic and he will moan about it until you stop him. I told him what I wanted with my hair, and he then gave me his usual cut. Do these people ever really listen? I think whatever you say to them they just give you their usual cut. Bridie went for a haircut last year, and took in a photo showing exactly what she wanted. She came home distraught, claiming to have been made to look like one of the Ramones. I must say she looked pretty good to me! (but then I have a thing for Joey Ramone).
Later that day, I met Andy Lewis to go over to Brian’s studio in Blackhorse Road, where we recorded the album. We wanted to get some sounds onto a CD to use live on a song called “The Lights Change”. Andy was in fine fettle, clutching a new digital Mellotron which he had just acquired. He was full of stories about having spent New Year’s Eve at a party at Paul Weller’s studio, and the next day walking with Paul in the Surrey countryside. I told him that Bono once stood on my foot, but he didn’t seem too impressed. Andy and I have written a song together called “36 Reasons Why”, which is for Andy’s next solo album, but I think we will try it live when we do the Shirley Lee gigs. Brian was well, and we chatted about doing some Spearmint recording in late February for a potential EP for later in the year. He is currently recording with The Clientele – I seem to remember I like them, but have not heard the recent stuff – must check it out.

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