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The Hard Sellout 

Bruce Brugmann, Frank Chu, Super Balls, U2, and folk-playing surfers

Wednesday, Nov 23 2005
For reasons some of you may be aware of but which I will not go into at this time, I have a vested interest in exploring the pros and cons of maintaining creative and professional independence in the modern world -- or, to put it another way, I have yet to decide upon what it means to sell out. What follows is another failed attempt to do so.

On Thursday, Nov. 10, Bruce Brugmann bought me a beer.

Bruce is the editor and publisher of this city's other altweekly; technically we're sworn enemies. So I couldn't resist the opportunity to crash a recent shindig hosted by said paper at 12 Galaxies, where I knew I'd find Bruce and maybe have a chance to engage in a little poo-flinging. I'll save you the details of our 30-minute conversation (!) save to say that it was, surprisingly, convivial. Upon wrapping up our chat, I turned to grab another beer and bumped into the one and only Frank Chu, San Francisco's celebrity "protester." We exchanged pleasantries, as always, and I found myself reaching a surprising conclusion: Bruce and Frank are remarkably alike.

First, they both dress sharply, Frank in a blazer, slacks, and sunglasses, Bruce in a three-piece wool suit complete with a snazzy tie his wife picked out for him. Second, they both like to get their faces plastered in as many places as possible, Bruce on newsstands, Frank in the background of local news broadcasts. Third, they both have the peculiar habit, when you speak with them, of reciting the same long list of talking points they've been reciting for a decade. With Frank it's "the impeachments of 2007," "not being paid by the CIA for being a movie star," and "12 Galaxies" (the venue is named after this one); with Bruce it's PG&E. Finally, and most interesting, Frank and Bruce are both small business owners: The former sells ad space on his ubiquitous billboard, the latter sells ad space in his weekly newspaper. The ads subsidize the messages of each.

As I've written in this space before, it's the message that matters in this equation, not the fact that simple business transactions are what facilitate the dissemination of said message. Is either of these two men's messages strange or crazy or irrelevant? I leave that judgment to you, reader.

U2 played the Oakland Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 8, and I was there. I'm a casual fan of the band. When traveling through Europe in the wake of 9/11, I cured a bout of homesickness with a copy of The Joshua Tree, odd considering that U2 is Irish, but it worked. Songs such as "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" are stitched into the fabric of my being, like it or not. Tuesday's U2 show was one of the best tickets money can buy. Which means that for all Bono's good intentions, I'm supposed to resent his success. Rock this popular, this indebted to the purse strings of Big Business, must be bad. (I had to strong-arm my skeptical companion into joining me, for instance.) But it's not. It simply isn't. Put aside the pageantry for a moment (and there's plenty at a U2 concert), and consider this: One of Bono's tricks for this tour is, between songs, to beseech the members of the audience to hold their cell phones aloft. They do. The lights go down.

"This is a true 21st-century moment," the singer proclaimed that evening. And he was right. In Oakland that night the capacity crowd of 17,771 disappeared amid a galaxy of glowing blue lights. Big-budget band/tour ... whatever: I've never seen anything like it.

In the Sunset, on the corner of Irving Street and 46th Avenue, sits the Mollusk surf shop. It's a relatively new place, opened five months ago by a guy named John McCambridge. John's got a few musician friends, and together they decided to host the occasional small show in the shop after business hours. I went to one last week: Jeff Manson and Mt. Eerie, aka indie impresario and Microphones founder Phil Elvrum, a not-small name. The shop was filled with surfboards, flip-flops, and about 50 kids sipping the odd tall-boy; the lights were turned down, and homemade psychedelic visuals were splashed on the wall by an overhead projector and some colored oils -- total DIY.

Seated Indian-style on the floor and flanked by candles, Manson played first, his songs simple and warm, all finger-picked major chords and husky vocals. The singer mentioned that one sounded like James Taylor; another earnestly used the metaphor of crashing waves to illustrate its point, which was a little ham-fisted, tell ya the truth. After that Elvrum took over, but his voice was shot, so he read (boring) poetry and played (serviceable) instrumentals.

The whole thing was a mere notch above a coffee shop sit-in, but it had potential. The scruffy, close-knit crowd pointed to a scene that, in a year or two, could easily be getting hassled by neighbors or shut down by cops. That's just what happens to scenes like this. They spark up spontaneously and organically, attract the curious, those seeking something off the beaten path, then before you know it people are talking about the good ol' days when the Mollusk hosted shows, when Jeff Manson sat on the floor and played to intimate crowds. Now he's playing the Fillmore ... oh me oh my, the way the day goes by.

The most beguiling thing I saw last week was a short video on the Internet ( It begins with a panoramic establishing shot of San Francisco and sweet, gently played guitar notes compliments of José Gonzaléz. (Side note: This Swede is the love child of Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, and his name is going to be on everyone's lips once he starts touring the States, so do yourself a favor and pick up his debut, Veneer, ASAP so you can call yourself an OG fan.) A few shots later two or three of those fluorescent-colored Super Balls bounce in slow motion down the street. Then there are a few more. Then a few more. Pretty soon the steep streets of Russian Hill are teeming with these balls, the camera moving in and out of their path, as if swimming through a school of fish. Two-hundred fifty thousand multicolored Super Balls. That's the final tally. For two minutes these things bounce up and down and over and through the frame. I can't even tell you how delectably dizzying the video is. (And ohmygod, does Gonzaléz's rendering of fellow Swedes the Knife's "Heartbeats" make the thing.)

Fact is, it's a commercial. For a new TV made by Sony. When the company's logo and slogan flash on the screen at the very end, it knocks the wind out of my sails. Still, I keep watching the video over and over, because it's gorgeous. Neither obtuse and pretentious nor cheaply puerile, it is simply a beautiful sequence; I wish it were Gonzaléz's music video (it might as well be), but it's an advertisement, and I'm supposed to hate those because they're crass and manipulative. And I do hate them. I do. But there's the rub: What else but the big budget of the Sony marketing department could have turned my S.F. streets into this visual playground for two minutes? If the kids inside the Mollusk that night had held up their cell phones, would it have been anything special?

Honestly, I don't know. As Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite authors, once told me, "Utopia is the show that always closes on opening night." In the wake of those words, I'm glad I got to see that video, and I'm glad I got to see the cell phone trick. I'm glad that Frank Chu and John McCambridge get to do their thing, and I'm even glad that Bruce Brugmann gets to do his, regardless of how each of them pulls it off.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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