John W. Wall
The Name Game
"Sarah Vowell" is obviously Gina Arnold -- or, at least, someone lamely attempting to channel her literary persona. No, I've got it: Perhaps Johnny Angel is hiding behind a pseudonym and attempting to Roto-Rooter his blocked Lester Bangs-obsessed muse by parodying Gina.
"Suspicious Minds" (June 19) consisted of a weak (or nonexistent) premise spread thin over very white bread, with a tenuous and unsatisfying conclusion for dessert. Only Arnold could consume 10 paragraphs attempting to "contextualize" the significance of the word "wanna" in rock 'n' roll. I'm not sure what her angle was, but the result -- dizzyingly incoherent, phoned-in fluff -- was characteristically Gina.
How could it be anyone but Arnold? There're those little stylistic giveaways -- beginning sentences with "The way I see it," the clueless condescension (calling Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker -- former leader of Heavens to Betsy and role model to thousands, championed by Robert Christgau, Evelyn McDonnell, and Arnold mentor Greil Marcus -- a "nobody from Olympia"), the cringe-worthy metaphorical platitudes ("Punk was one big stomach growling, an intense craving for something better"), the crowbarred quotes from whatever rock book she's skimming this week -- these are all the warning signs that the reader has entered Gina Arnold's Zone of Bad Rock Writing. As Gina would say, "Let's face it": The Peter Principle applies to music journalism, too.
(Is it just a coincidence that irrelevant, grasping garbage such as this shows up in your pages mere weeks after best-friend-of-Gina Bill Wyman takes over SF Weekly's arts pages?)
Gina's unremittingly lame and willful ignorance of Bay Area music is already well-documented. You can do better; please try ... especially in light of the recent, glaring absences of Sia Michel and Johnny Huston.
Hey, Gina can't write very well, but at least she has no coherent ideas to relate ... just that very fuzzy, whiny, first-person-singular Arnold agenda we've come to know and despise. Please allow her to languish in Berkeley, where the East Bay Express still sees fit to give this syntax-challenged nitwit a weekly forum.
And if it wasn't/isn't Gina -- don't bother. Arnold's prose renders parody redundant. Put her on the payroll and be done with it ... or at least have the guts to print the stuff under her own name.
This is to address Sarah Vowell's "Suspicious Minds" piece (June 12) on Gillian Welch's debut album, Revival. What Vowell describes as "the country equivalent of, say, a New Jersey punk band railing against Margaret Thatcher in fake cockney accents" is not only a fantastic album, but one hailed by the old-time and bluegrass communities themselves -- her songs have been recorded and performed by such bluegrass legends as Tim O'Brien, Emmylou Harris, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Their standards apparently aren't high enough for Vowell, whose only points of reference for music in the '90s are Moby and Kurt Cobain. It seems a shame to me that the piece portrays Welch as a poseur instead of a stereotype-defying role model. In her article, Vowell offers no alternative for what music a young, white, educated person should be playing, or what their motivation might be for this feigning of authenticity. She accuses Welch of being a "solemn culture vulture," her songs as being "subject matter trespasses," and Welch of having "a humorless reverence in her tone that no real yokel (or fan of yokels) would ever stand for." Vowell's use of the word yokel really sums up her knowledge or respect of this music. The stereotype of the toothless, illiterate hillbilly musician is one that bluegrass performers and fans have been fighting since The Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance. If we are to follow her rule of cultural "authenticity," then who should play jazz, rock, blues, or salsa? The ideas and emotions expressed in music are universal -- isn't that the whole point?
Vowell, unfortunately, doesn't qualify many of her statements with facts; for example, "[D]ecades ago the great hymnal authors knew their theology" is little better than a wild guess at historical reference -- there were no "great hymnal authors." The stylistic predecessors of what Welch is doing are much more recent, and the Doubting Thomas comparison is a stretch to put it mildly. She seems more concerned with the fact that Gillian Welch went to the same school as Branford Marsalis than with allowing the quality of the music to speak for itself. Perhaps she would have been happier if Welch had never gone to school at all. No doubt then she would be hailing her as "a national treasure," a "stunning debut" with "elegant simplicity," or some other cliche to which she subscribes.
Vowell's position is unconvincing as well as destructive in its criticism. Vowell will no doubt continue to decide who plays what, and with what degree of authenticity, for many issues to come. Maybe with her help we can compile a list of all these cultural offenders and deal with them accordingly. After all, if there's one thing America doesn't need, it's young people with an "overdeveloped interest in (their) own history."
Gordon Young's story "Deadbeat Heaven" (June 12) provides some much-appreciated gender balance by discussing in detail the case of one man whose ex-wife is the "deadbeat." Nevertheless, I believe that it misses some important points. It may also contribute to a prevalent yet ill-founded approach to improving the financial condition of single-parent families.
Despite Young's refusal to stereotype so-called "deadbeats" as all male, nevertheless his article -- like the term "deadbeat" -- is problematic in focusing on child support while ignoring two critical issues: the need to ensure that custody is assigned fairly and that the corresponding visitation orders are honored. The absence of these two features in the current system is a problem typically operating to separate the non-custodial father from his children and therefore make it much less likely that he will contribute to their support.
The only approach to child support that will work requires linking child support payments to rights of access to the child(ren). A plethora of grossly underpublicized studies have shown that men who are offered access to their children will honor their child support obligations at a rate of 90 percent or even higher. A truly just and effective system also requires an end to the current legal situation in many states, including California, in which a woman will almost always receive custody in contested cases barring one of several specific bases for finding her unfit. We need a judicial presumption of joint custody and an end to this anti-male sexism that robs most men of the right to realistically seek shared custody of their children in contested cases. Such a potential is offered by Assembly Bill 999, which was voted on on July 3, and which would change California law to create a judicial presumption of joint custody.
The real problem is that visitation rights are enforced extremely laxly, if at all, while child support obligations are much more vigorously pursued, even in California with all the bureaucratic inefficiencies Young pointed out. Using the stick while taking away the carrot leads to predictable results, regardless of the non-custodial parent's gender. Women, incidentally, have repeatedly been shown to have lower child support payment rates for a given income level than men, and rates for women who are barred from access to their children are also lower than those of men who are similarly blocked from enjoying their visitation rights.
Young misses the point by implying that single-parent families' financial health can best be promoted by pressuring the agencies -- however inefficient or efficient they may be -- to pursue non-custodial parents ever more vigorously. Let's give the fathers (and mothers) time with their children through a joint-custody presumption and equally vigilant enforcement of visitation, and parents will pay the money they owe, as studies have shown.
J. Steven Svoboda
In the "Best of San Francisco" (June 26), we took note of Cafe Chaise. For the record, the restaurant has since changed owners, and we plan to visit again soon.
The winners of Best Retail Combination ("Best of San Francisco," June 26), Wheat Grass Growers Farm & Depot and Jet Hand Carwash & Detail, are separate enterprises; Eva Moten owns Wheat Grass Growers only.