Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Bluesman's Blues 

Paul Pena,who's played with everyone from Jerry Garcia to B.B. King, is coming out of the musical shadows, thanks to the award-winning documentary Genghis Blues. He's also blind, and sick, and entirely tired of living.

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
Two men showed up to offer their own tribute: Jorge Molina playing a conch and Paul Pena blowing into a five-foot-long digeridoo, an Australian instrument crafted from a hollow eucalyptus branch. Stopping to chant in what he called a Tuvan style, still practiced in a part of Siberia near Mongolia, Pena brought an extra touch of the surreal to the Haight's avant-garde strip of funky shops and pizza eateries: "Aaaaaa-iiii-aaaaaaa-iii-eeeeeeee-iii. ..."

"I'm just saying goodbye, thanking him for all he's done for me," Pena said. "I wanted to say goodbye and give him whatever energetic support he needs on his transition -- and I hope someone will do the same for me when I check out."

-- The Los Angeles Times, reporting from San Francisco the day after Jerry Garcia died

Paul Pena is 49 years old and blind, and he lives with a blind man's concerns about security. Getting him on the phone requires passing muster in a screening process that includes a malfunctioning answering machine, long-lasting electronic screeches and, often, Pena's prolonged cursing of modern technology.

To gain entry to his Cole Valley apartment, one must hit the buzzer at the door the correct number of times and at the correct speed, sending the series of pulses that lets him know the person at his door is a friend, or at least somebody he's decided to allow into his home. He knows Morse Code and wishes that he had a buzzer with two tones. Then, the people coming to see him would have their own access codes, announcing themselves in dot-dash-dot fashion before entry.

Although electronic gadgetry is an inescapable part of his daily life, Pena complains a lot about it. Sometimes, he says, technology can be more of a barrier than a help to a blind man. There are, for example, at least four computers in his apartment -- one in his bedroom and three in his living room, two sitting unused in a corner. But it's far from easy for him to access music on the Web, maybe download some of the old blues songs he's spent much of his life playing. Web designers don't often take the blind into account. "Image, image, image," the vocal reader on his computer tells him. "Image" is a word he can't do a thing with, and he repeats it like a curse.

Pena is an accomplished guitarist, pianist, singer, and songwriter, but he's a member of that certain class of musicians who are more famous for their associations than for what they've done themselves. The list of people Pena's opened for or performed with is a blues and classic-rock Who's Who: T-Bone Walker, Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Raitt, Merl Saunders, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King, among others. Anybody within earshot of a classic-rock radio station still regularly hears Pena's most famous song, "Jet Airliner," a blues-rock meditation on his Massachusetts roots that became a Top Ten hit for the Steve Miller Band.

And then there are the less-famous musicians whose acquaintance Pena has made over the past 15 years. They're the throat singers from Tuva, a tiny Russian republic nestled between Siberia and Mongolia, who are capable of voicing multiple notes simultaneously. After discovering the genre by chance on shortwave radio, Pena taught himself the music and also created a bizarre but somehow right mixture of gutbucket blues and Tuvan throat singing. He gave an impromptu audition of his self-taught singing abilities when one of Tuva's premier singers visited San Francisco in 1994. Pena was asked to participate in a singing competition in Tuva the following year, and his performance there earned him an audience-appreciation award.

This Asian sojourn was caught on videotape by Roko and Adrian Belic, brothers and filmmakers from Vallejo who came along for the ride. The resulting documentary, Genghis Blues, won the audience award for best documentary at January's Sundance Film Festival and will receive one of several Golden Gate awards honoring Bay Area documentaries at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The Belics have toured the film at festivals in Rotterdam, Berlin, and Santa Barbara and are looking into festival offers from an array of cities worldwide. Distribution deals are being pondered, and the film will be presented for two weeks at the Castro Theater in July. The success of the movie has steered new attention to Pena's own career; plans to reissue both of Pena's own albums -- one out of print, another, with the original version of "Jet Airliner," never released -- are in discussion.

In short, this could be Paul Pena's lucky break, the culmination of more than 30 years of work as a musician, more often spent near the spotlight than actually in it.

He's too sick to enjoy a second of it. There's the congenital glaucoma that blinded him and, because glaucoma places pressure on the eye, continues to cause him pain. And the long-term depression he's suffered ever since his wife and companion of two decades, Babe, died in 1991 after a long battle with kidney problems. Plus the fire in his apartment in 1997 that put him in a four-day coma and left him with what he calls "smoke inhalation, economy size," and chronic, severe stomach pains.

The Paul Pena on screen in Genghis Blues is a stout man with a deep voice; the one you see now, in real life, is rail-thin and slow-moving, with a voice as coarse as sandpaper. His days are usually structured around doctors' appointments, provided he's feeling well enough to make them.

The idea that all of the attention given to Genghis Blues means a career break for Paul Pena doesn't impress a man struggling in the midst of "this bloody health bullshit."

"I have a hard time with the future," he says. "I don't believe in the future. It's been a long time since I've been happy. I get slapped whenever I try to be optimistic."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"