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So long, merry new year 

The winter of our erector sets

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
In December I went east for the holidays for the first time in three years. My small hometown in Massachusetts looked even more unrealistic than it had on past visits, as if the buildings were all two-dimensional cutouts in some Hollywood western. Everything I looked at reminded me of the lyrics to Peter Gabriel's "Big Time," which a friend used to mutter like a mantra during high school: "The place where I come from is a small town/ They think so small they use small words/ But not me, I'm smarter than that/ I worked it out, I've been stretching my mouth/ To let those big words come right out."

San Francisco is full of such expats, people who needed to get "the fuck out of this town," as Pavement once sang. Here, such outsider types practically run things, while in my old burg there's only one place of refuge for them: a record store called About Music. Unfortunately, while About Music is the kind of beacon I would've killed for when I was growing up, it pales in comparison to S.F.'s shops. When I visited the store over the holidays, the staff showed off its cutting-edge status by playing the Donnas' Turn 21, an album that came out in January 2001. Looking for a way to spend a Christmas gift certificate, I flipped through the racks desultorily, until I came across a used copy of Leonard Cohen's second LP, 1969's Songs From a Room.

I'd always thought Cohen's laconic delivery, poetic lyrics, and minimalist production were not for me. But now I took a chance and purchased the record, and found out that I'd been dead wrong.

Maybe it had something to do with the time of year, but Songs From a Room floored me. Beyond the great lyrics -- who could resist a song about "a bunch of lonesome and quarrelsome heroes," sung for crickets? -- it was the record's sound that made my head swirl. Bob Johnston, who helmed several early Bob Dylan records, clothed Cohen's voice in simple guitar strumming and buzzing jew's-harp, bathing it all in a crystalline austerity. Such brittleness is perfectly suited to the early days of the year, when even a morning bowl of cereal appears sharper and more vivid, as if to say, "Hey, pay attention to what you're doing! Is this what you want your life to be like?" The tracks' cold tones fit snugly into this time of wintry resolutions, when you look at the building blocks of life and try to erect something new.

Maybe this should be the year we take nothing for granted. Music I once dismissed -- early '80s hip hop, Hawaiian instrumentals, ironic folk-singers -- now sounds utterly grand. Go ahead and try it: If you hate metal, borrow a Slayer album. If you loathe techno, pick up a Cybotron 12-inch. You just might find something new to love.

Small rooms and big gals In line with this spirit of freshness and novelty, S.F.'s Hemlock Tavern has begun hosting live bands, thanks to a recently soundproofed 55-person performance room. The spacious Polk Street bar, opened last October by folks from the Casanova Lounge and a member of the band Fuck, offers an eclectic range of music -- with a twist. Hemlock booker Ali Neff explains: "We want as big a variety as the jukebox at the Casanova and the Hemlock -- from dub to [psych-metal act] Hawkwind to singer/songwriters to garage rock to indie. ... We want people doing different stuff than they're used to. We'd like an indie pop band doing all Guided by Voices covers or a guy from ZZ Top doing solo acoustic songs." The room is small enough and the ticket prices low enough that musicians should feel free to experiment. One planned recurring event features local rock bands playing country covers, curated by former exec Nick Tangborn. There's also a wide selection of DJ nights, including Blaze Orange's already popular old-school country hoedown on Sundays from 4 to 9 p.m. For more information, call the Hemlock at 923-0923.

Not to be outdone in the change department, "Stinky's Peep Show" has moved -- again. After several weeks at Club Caliente, the Thursday night event picked up its large and lovely bikini bottoms and headed over to the Justice League, where it will have its "grand re-re-re-opening" on Jan. 10, featuring sets by Texas Terri & the Stiff Ones, Lust Killers, and One Time Angels. According to a "Stinky's" staff member who wished to remain nameless, the venue switch was due to Club Caliente's being better suited to hoochie mama dance crowds than blue-collar band shows. Apparently, drink prices were sky high, the management treated the bands and dancers poorly, and the bartenders were unprepared for a deluge of beer and whiskey drinkers. (When asked for comment, Club Caliente Manager Ernest Salinas brushed aside the complaints, saying he thought "Stinky's" had a good thing going and he wished the organizers the best of luck.) The Justice League might be more hospitable, but only time will tell. For more info, call 440-0409.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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