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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, May 26 1999
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Look ... let me just get this over with.
I like Bruce Springsteen.
I'm from New Jersey. I grew up with the man -- sleeping out for tickets at Giants Stadium, memorizing all the lyrics, and consuming his cassettes driving slowly, night after night after night, up and down the same dead streets of one suburban Jersey town in my piece-of-shit brown-paneled Datsun.

OK. There it is.
I only trot out this dysfunctional slice of personal history by way of explaining why a dinner invitation from Ian Brennan, local musician and creator of the popular weekly music showcase "Unscrubbed," sent initial pangs through the heart of this particular Jersey boy. You see, I'm afraid my basic-Bruce education has stunted what would otherwise have been my normal musical development. I jumped straight from "Glory Days" to Green Day, missing quite a bit in between, and as a result, the prospect of talking shop with a serious rock-o-phile tends to scare the living shit out of me.

However, since The Man Who Came to Dinner constantly strives to expand his horizons, along with his waistline, I accepted the challenge and made my way past the pseudo-live-work spaces to the very top of Potrero Hill. And incidentally, may I just add: Baby, we were born to run.

Every week Ian Brennan hosts the free Monday night music series at Brain Wash, a South of Market laundry/cafe. Saturday, May 22, he celebrated the release of the third CD collection to result from the project -- Unscrubbed: Live From the Laundromat III -- with a fund-raiser at the Paradise Lounge and Transmission Theater featuring 20 bands. Standing on the street outside Ian's apartment I pictured all 20 of them already upstairs, warming up their amps, fighting over the pizza slices, and jockeying for the chance to preview their local rock 'n' roll, one after another after another.

I thought achingly about my head, my ears, my stomach. And, as I do every week, I dove in. Moments later I was inside Ian's apartment, where I quickly learned two things:

1) "Unscrubbed" is an acoustic showcase. Therefore: no amps. And ...
2) I'm an idiot.
Dinner was simply Ian, a gentle, soft-spoken musician with long curly hair; his exceedingly kind wife, Erika; and one additional guest, Greg Heller of the local band Amateur Night. Instead of the beer-soaked basement with cigarette-burned sofas that I'd feared, Ian and Erika have one of the most charming San Francisco apartments I've ever seen, impeccably decorated and backed by a long terrace overlooking expansive views of China Basin, the bay, and beyond. As we stood outside soaking in the scenery, Ian poured a nice bottle of white wine, while Erika set out some fresh French bread beside a plate of pepper-laced olive oil.

Ian began telling me a little more about the annual benefit. "Everybody shares equipment," he explained. "And we set up a wheel-of-fortune on every stage, and then spin it to see which band plays next, and for how long. It's kind of like the musical revues of the '60s. Because nobody gets to play for too long. So everyone is doing their very best stuff."

Erika returned from the kitchen with the first of several courses, broiled skewers of huge sea scallops intertwined with a ribbon of bacon. Perfect.

As the sun disappeared and the wind picked up we decided to move the party just inside the terrace windows to an old wooden table off the kitchen. Ian and Greg gave me a quick lesson in local music industry politics, lamenting the attitudes and egos that often foster competition instead of collectivity.

"There's people that are definitely in it for music before money," explained Greg, who also writes a column in BAM. "You know, I think that's many, many people. But there's nobody that doesn't want a record deal. You know? There's nobody that's like, 'I am so indie, and so do-it-for-myself, so in it for the love, that, like, I really hope I sell no records, and don't make a lot of money this year.' So it's very strange that people on one hand are trying to foster a community, and on the other are trying to get record deals."

Ian added, "The thing I see is usually the bigger the band, the smaller the ego. And the smaller the band, the bigger the ego."

Erika produced a round of steamed asparagus with an ample cover of Parmesan cheese. "I was going to cook," said Ian. "But she wouldn't let me."

"That's right," confirmed Erika with a smile, as she sat on the rattan sofa beside us.

" 'Unscrubbed' is one of the most communal things that we have," said Greg. "The spirit of competition is just not in play there."

"Not at all," Ian agreed.
"But everywhere else it is," Greg concluded.
Making one more trip to the kitchen, Erika presented us with a simple penne pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic, and brie sauce.

"Brie?"
"Yes," said Erika. "You just take off the rind, shred it up, and toss it in. And the sauce is all raw basically," she explained. "You make it raw and let it sit for hours. Like a marinade."

I asked Erika what she did with her days, and was quite impressed to learn that both she and Ian work in psychiatric wards -- Erika with 13- to 17-year-olds in a Berkeley hospital, and Ian doing triage in psychiatric emergency rooms throughout Alameda County.

"I do that every weekend," explained Ian. "Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Then during the week I teach nonviolent crisis intervention classes at hospitals. That's how I support all this 'Unscrubbed' stuff. Because it's really a major labor of love. And it takes all my money. More than I have."

Most of the remainder of the evening was spent discussing Ian and Erika's work, and some related social issues.

"So, unlike a medical doctor," asked Greg, "all your efforts are ultimately spent trying to give someone a better 20 minutes, as opposed to a better 20 years?"

"Yeah," answered Ian. "A better 20 seconds, maybe. Initially people come into the field with a certain motivation or ideal, and they either become cynical or they reach a point where they come to a reality. After a while I think you stay in the field, hopefully because you're good at it. Whether you make a contribution becomes secondary. That's why music to me is social work. I mean, the contribution that someone like Bruce Springsteen has made ..."

Wait a second. Hold everything.
"Whew," I interrupted. "I have very little music experience. But I'm a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. And it's something that I would never have admitted in front of musicians, for fear of just being pummeled."

"Oh, no no no," Greg reassured me.
"I think a lot of musicians are closeted Springsteen fans," added Ian. The two pros went on to formulate their respective lists of the greatest songwriters of all time. They had Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Simon in common, and Elvis Costello, Paul Westerberg, and Tom Waits were also hotly debated. But both put Bruce toward the very top of their lists.

All right, then. Bring on the dessert.
As Erika served up some French vanilla bean ice cream from Mitchell's extraordinary ice cream parlor, topped with fresh strawberries, we all traded Springsteen stories.

Alas, I'm afraid my anecdote about my last-minute trip to the front of the stage at the Tacoma Dome lost out to Greg's tale about peeing in his pants, "three or four times," rather than missing the end of a Bruce concert.

Of course, I forgot to tell them about the time the security guards at the Meadowlands let us in to play soccer, helped us break into the beer storage, and then allowed us to race their golf carts -- all while we were sleeping out on a rumor about tickets that never went on sale. Or how I totaled that old '81 Datsun because I was trying to find "Cadillac Ranch" on the car stereo for a friend.

Oh, and by the way, calling Bruce "The Boss" when you're in New Jersey is somewhat akin to saying "Frisco" here. You've been warned.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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