by Roberto Friedman
Welcome to the second week of our fall preview looking at the Bay Area arts scene. This week, find surveys of some upcoming highlights in theatre, books, popular music and museum shows. Next week, stay tuned for a look at offerings in new art-gallery exhibitions. Hold onto your hat, because here comes the 2012-13 arts season!
But not before we introduce a bit of late-summer editorial to illustrate the column, from photographer Cornelius Washington , a picture that he calls "very gnarly – beyond headshot, darling! I've done it in my hand-painted technique because, like all editors, you want color on the page!" Oh, but we do, we do! Thanks, CW!
In these last days of summer hiatus, we've been holed up in our Hayes Valley flat reading Telegraph Avenue, the new novel by Michael Chabon that's due for release from Harper this coming Tues., Sept. 11. It's a doorstop of a hardcover, in five sections that run to 465 pages, and it offers a depiction of a whole world, centered around a funky little record shop on the storied Berkeley boulevard of the title, an enterprise threatened by the huge, corporate conglomerate megastore moving in down the block. Because of the nature of its milieu, the novel is stuffed full of classic references to soul, blues, jazz and R&B vinyl, presented in a very Chabonesque (Chabonic?) way – that is, he piles it on. Fiction-loving Out There, with our famously thirsty ears, is eating it all up.
The cast of characters – headed by Brokeland Records partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe; their wives, the midwife proprietresses of Berkeley Birth Partners, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe ; and ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode , the fifth-richest black man in America, who intends to build his Dogpile megastore in Berkeley, vintage-vinyl mavens be damned – is lively and varied, and there's even a risk-taking gangle (gay angle) in the form of a budding multiracial underage romance between teenagers Julius Jaffe and Titus Joyner , but it's less sexually shocking than it is just the type of boy-crush endemic to 15-year-old buddies. Best of all, it's a novel firmly set in the peculiar universe of the Bay Area – the cover blurb calls it "a NorCal Middlemarch," but we'd say that's reaching a bit too far – and it's so much fun to see the references to East Bay landmarks and cultural types parade past. Here's a line, for example, about Goode's personal airship: "The zeppelin appeared to be as long as a block of Telegraph Avenue, as tall as Kaiser Hospital."
Goode's bodyguard is described as "a basalt monolith, the very thing to set half-apes dreaming of the stars. Black knit polo shirt, skull polished like the knob on an Oscar. Gold-rimmed sunglasses, gold finger rings, black Levi's. Timberland loafers. Pausing at the top of a fold-down stair for a display of freestyle looming, brother looked like a celebrity golfer or as if perhaps he had recently eaten a celebrity golfer." As you can see, there's a lot of satiric humor packed into Chabon's opus. The Dogpile zeppelin itself is described as a "big black visual pun on centuries of white male anatomical anxiety."
We've followed Chabon's fabulous career ever since his debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, through Wonder Boys, and we absolutely devoured The Yiddish Policemen's Union. As wise to the ways of Yiddish culture as was the latter, it's good to see the novelist similarly take on contemporary African American culture, Bay Area New Ageism, used vinyl fanboy culture, and the cultural landscape of the borderlands between Oakland and Berkeley, with his signature completest panache. If Chabon succumbs a bit too much, for our taste, to wannabe-Joycean tricks and techniques – the entire third chapter is a run-on sentence describing a fugitive parrot's path; one passage describes the boys' exile from home as if it were a quasi-fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons game – that's a small price to pay for so much good humor and expertise. We recommend it for a long restorative wallow in a fictional NorCal world.
Gwen is contrary: "She had never liked the Bay Area, with its irresolute and timid weather, the tendency of its skies in any season to bleed gray, the way it had arranged its hills and vistas like a diva setting up chairs around her to ensure the admiration of visitors. The people around here were fetishists and cultists, prone to schism and mania, liable to invest all their hope of heaven in the taste of an egg laid in the backyard by a heritage-breed chicken." But Julius sees the poetry in the place, even in "the string of loading cranes massed along the westernmost edge of town, the 1st Oakland Cavalry readying a charge on San Francisco, shipping containers stacked around their feet, like bales of hay by giant quartermasters, to fuel the final assault."
The book has been heralded with plenty of pre-publicity regarding its digital incarnation, a so-called EEB ("enhanced e-book"). Arts writer Andre Tartar reports for Vulture: "Chabon's first new novel in five years will come with such bells and whistles as an interactive map of Oakland, where the book's Black Panthers and ' used vinyl' coexist, an animated cover, author-selected playlist complete with custom-composed theme song, audiobook clips narrated by Treme's Clarke Peters, and original illustrations by the artist Stainboy Reinel of (oddly enough) 'air fresheners,' a DVD boxed set, and a fake iron-on T-shirt of the buxomy tiger-striped CandyGirl. It's basically the literary equivalent of a 4-D theater desperately deploying smoke machines and water spray-guns to keep increasingly hard-to-impress patrons interested." We're sure all the bells and whistles are fun, but we'll take our fiction in lines of type set on off-white vellum, please. We can imagine becoming distracted from the text, in the same way that our online attention span is so easily led away from the concentration of close reading. Oh, the web-surfing humanity!
So partly in homage to the vinyl discs that clutter Brokeland record shop, and partly in defiance of the dematerialized digital world, we listened to some of our favorite vintage discs – yes, we own a turntable to go with our CD deck and amplified receiver, antiquated technologies all – while we read and savored Telegraph Avenue. Our playlist included Together Again by the Bill Evans-Lee Konitz Quartet (Moon Records), Mingus Moves by Charles Mingus (Atlantic), Vibrations by Albert Ayler, Don Cherry , Gary Peacock and Sonny Murray (Arista), Mr. Gone by Weather Report (Columbia), and The Man I Love by Thelonious Monk (Black Lion) – pressed plastic all, and rarer than a platinum iPod.
Bay Area author and filmmaker Nikos Diaman writes, "I edited the 17 short videos at www.youtube.com/user/PersonaPro from interviews conducted 20 years ago. Those interviews were the preliminary steps taken to produce a feature-length documentary about the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), New York 1969-71. Viewing the material reignited my interest in the project, but I can continue only if I'm able to raise additional funds. If you can help, please contact me, Nikos Diaman, at firstname.lastname@example.org."