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House of Tudor 

Get the scoop on SF's Emperor Norton

Wednesday, Nov 19 2003
As a percussionist, Gino Robair has long plumbed the junk drawer of inspiration: Hand whisks, spoons, bells, wire, mixers, nails, and bowls have wandered and weaseled their way into semi-permanent positions on his kit over the years. The resulting cornucopia of screeches, scrapes, burbles, ripples, whistles, and booms has earned Robair the appreciation and devotion of some of the Bay Area's most innovative musicians, players such as the Splatter Trio, Beth Custer, Matthew Brubeck, Tom Waits, Oluyemi Thomas, and Carla Kihlstedt, all of whom must certainly share a fascination and affection for Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. In the mid-1800s, during his reign, Emperor Norton decreed that all reference to his hometown as "Frisco" be a punishable offense; he also abolished the Democratic and Republican parties, ordered a suspension bridge be built between Oakland and San Francisco, and demanded monetary tribute from the Sacramento legislature. While not all of his commands were carried out (a circumstance the Emperor redressed by issuing warrants), they were routinely printed by local newspapers and supported by the populace. (When Norton's dog died, Mark Twain took it upon himself to write the epitaph; when Norton himself died, tens of thousands of San Franciscans turned out to pay homage.) As self-proclaimed royalty, Norton has never been equaled, and his knack for hyperbole and improvisation remains an inspiration to every man, woman, and artist who has ever wanted to print up his own money to buy a burrito at the local taqueria. In deference and adoration, Robair has embarked on the long-overdue writing of a full-length "impropera" titled I, Norton. The project is partially funded by a grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and made possible by an incredible ensemble of more than 40 musicians. Excerpts from the colossal work-in-progress will be performed on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 8 p.m. at 21 Grand, 449B 23rd St. (between Broadway and Telegraph), Oakland. Ticket price is $10; call (510) 444-7263.

Call it a shortcoming if you will, but I am never moved by politics until they are translated into art. So, while an event called "These Colors Don't Run: A Night of Political Readings, Videos and Mayhem" might seem anomalous in this column, it is, in fact, custom-made for apolitical folks who, just like me, find emotions more compelling than policies and talking heads. Prompted by the release of Politically Inspired, a book of short fiction grounded in current events, "These Colors" offers readings by contributing writers such as Mistress Morgana, a professional dominatrix, educator, and author; Stephen Elliott, editor of Politically Inspired and McSweeney's darling; and Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles; as well as Alan Black and Luke James, co-editors of the upcoming Edinburgh Castle anthology Hammered; Jack Boulware, much beloved and irreverent nonfiction writer and Litquake co-founder (and former SF Weekly staff writer); and performance poet Daphne Gottlieb. Visuals will be offered by Brian Gage, co-author of the disturbing cautionary tale Snark, Inc., and the Guerrilla News Network, an underground news-jacking team that has garnered awards from Sundance and the Media That Matters Film Festival, as well as paychecks from Eminem and the Beastie Boys' Ad Rock for its politically charged music videos. If you want to get riled up, this is the night for it. "These Colors Don't Run" will be held on Saturday, Nov. 22, at Edinburgh Castle at 9 p.m. Ticket price is $8-10; call 885-4074.

Steadfastly working-class, melancholic, and impenitently thoughtful, New Model Army always seemed punk by position, both politically and historically, more than inclination. Not to say NMA didn't conjure and apply the decibels of rage necessary to be considered punk in 1983, but from the beginning frontman Justin Sullivan wrote like a folkie, albeit one influenced by the Clash rather than the Clancy Brothers. NMA's thunderous drums and machine-gun guitars were used with nearly strategic precision to build emotion rather than express it (no finer house band could you choose for a local riot or proletariat uprising); but the music was just a carefully positioned framework for words delivered in Sullivan's plaintive minor-key wail and signature gritty-nailed growl. So it won't surprise fans that the newly released chronological retrospective, Great Expectations: The Singles Collection, actually sounds like an acoustic album waiting to happen. Sullivan seemed to know it even at the time. But while he was using violins, acoustic guitars, and harmonica long before it was fashionable for heavy rock bands to do so, he conscientiously resisted the tow of the anti-folk movement, employing a rabid backing band and infusing his lyrics, which clearly drew on the poetic narrative of Irish folk singing, with the simple, powerful, repetitive choruses popularized by football hooligans and Oi! Perhaps Sullivan thought, and rightly at the time, that one Billy Bragg was enough for an island nation. Whatever the reason, the result is that many NMA songs -- which by virtue of Sullivan's lyrics and composition alone should be regarded as enduring ballads and/or anthems of protest -- sound just like dated rock songs. In fairness, the ferocity of "Here Comes the War" and "51st State" should still capture the attention of even 21st-century ears, as should the effortless sincerity of "Better Than Them," "Vagabonds," and "You Weren't There" (and giddy nostalgia will no doubt carry "Great Expectations" and "Stupid Questions" quite a way). The rest of the songs, however, would be better experienced and appreciated on Tuesday, in a live and nearly acoustic setting, with nothing but a guitar and keyboard to stand between Sullivan's fervent observations of inequity and our freshly honed ears. New Model Army performs on Tuesday, Nov. 25, at DNA Lounge with Bauhaus' David J. and DJs Decay and Dangerous Dr. Dave opening at 8 p.m. Ticket price is $12; call 626-1409.

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Silke Tudor


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