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Monday, February 23, 2015

Music Heroes: Jonathan Siegel

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 10:54 AM

click to enlarge Jonathan Siegel loves San Francisco musicians thiiiis much. - DREW DANIELS
  • Drew Daniels
  • Jonathan Siegel loves San Francisco musicians thiiiis much.

The pretty couple standing next to me are losing their minds. They love it.

"What is this place?" Laughing, grabbing each other by the lapels. "Look at that! And that! They have music here? This is awesome. What is this place?" I have to laugh too, and appreciate — I'm just waiting for the small room, while they're having some kind of awakening.

Somehow this funny pair have made their way to the very back of Viracocha without having the slightest idea what kind of place it is. But far from being wary or confused, they only want more, and tangentially, to figure out what kind of place it is. They're in a fairytale right now: The store's twisted branches and glinting machinery all washed in a dark-gold glow combine high design, rough nature, and a warm welcome. I've become spoiled by overexposure and hardly see it anymore, so it's good to be jostled by these wild-eyed little animals.

   People flipping out is an extremely common sight inside the beautiful furniture, home-decor, jewelry, music, soap, clothing, and lamp shop on Valencia and 21st. What's really going to cook the young couple's brains, though, is downstairs, where the music is. A room unlike any in the country waits down there; acoustically perfect, visually stunning, and designed to respect both audience and talent, tonight it's filled with a tribute concert to Harry Nilsson, the oft-overlook singer-songwriter voice of the early 1970s. It's sold out.

Jonathan Siegel made all this stuff happen. As we talk across the cash register, a brass-appointed behemoth from some other era, music thuds through the floor. He's called away to cart something down to the stage area. He can't even take time to sit for a short interview; he does almost everything himself. He's sweating, even as calm as he appears to be.

"I came from New York," he says, from the spoken-word poetry scene, "where it was very cutthroat. There was a minimal amount of community support, because everyone was vying for the same amount of attention, and trying to hit the big one or whatever."

San Francisco, or his San Francisco anyway, is different, has the enormous camaraderie of people "willing to jump into each others bands or support one another in other ways, even though they know they're not going to get paid tons of money. In the end, we go to sleep at night feeling like we've created something. We go to sleep feeling like we've made a community."

When I ask why he's done it, he's eloquent, see above, although ultimately I think he's too close to it all to even imagine a life in which he'd make decisions based on money. Yet money preoccupies him, and he cites several figures during our short conversation so terrifying I don't even want to repeat them. In the beginning the space was supported by a steady stream of volunteers, and was functional. Most of those people have been evicted, laid off from day jobs, or in other ways pushed out of the area and out of the lives that allowed them to contribute to running Viracocha.

Now, "It doesn't make a difference if we sell out with a hundred people, we're still losing money," he says. Without the bitterness you might expect, he lays it on the line: "I've sold everything I own, everything I've ever accumulated in my life. I've gotten rid of my apartment, my car, everything just to try to keep this space afloat."

Lots of small business owners are in the same boat, he reminds me.

Recently, Viracocha remodeled in order to bring the space up to fire and health code, to go aboveboard; before that they had operated semi-legally, with many people and municipal agencies essentially looking the other way out of support for the good will and good culture the store creates. "We tried to do everything the city wanted us to do; to accommodate the rules and regulations we had to invest quite a bit, to borrow quite a bit. Even with that, we were given a tremendous break because we went through the Entertainment Commission," he says. The result is a lot of debt. It continues, he admits, to be an uphill battle.

I don't know what happened to the young couple. Instead, a woman barges past me to buy a trinket from Siegel. "What do I get with it?" she demands. "It's my birthday. I want a free ticket to the music." He smiles, and I'm sure she doesn't see the pain in it, but I do. Still, the smile is genuine, because what the hell, she wants to see a show.

"How about half off?" There ensues a ghastly scene during which the woman announces to her companions, a pair of visibly Midwestern broheims, that she's going downstairs. They say they're opting instead to "go be sleazy somewhere."

To my huge disappointment, even though the birthday girl nods, unsurprised by the sleaze expedition, they look around and change their minds. They will go see the music after all. They nod to Siegel. "Thanks, man."

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