Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hippies on Mount Tam 1: The Musical

There were only two sunny spots on Sunday, midway in the Bay Area's Memorial Weekend. One was the top of Mount Diablo in the East Bay (seen above looming over the cloud cover)...

...and the other was the peak of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County...

...where "The Mountain Play" was celebrating its 94th year with a 40th anniversary production of the rock musical "Hair" (click here for their website).

The 4,000-seat amphitheatre sits near the peak of Mount Tam...

...and if the annual musical becomes too dull, there's a great view to the southeast which includes downtown San Francisco when it's not socked in with fog.

There was pre-show entertainment offered at eleven in the morning, including a set by "Haight & Ashbury" which turned out to be none other than Dan Hicks, accompanied by Paul Robinson, Brian Simpson and Paul Smith.

Dan Hicks and [an updated version of] the Hot Licks are still performing with some frequency around the country (click here for his nicely designed website), but Hicks started out in 1965 with a group called The Charlatans who pretty much helped to invent the original hippie scene in San Francisco and its surroundings.

Sitting directly behind us in the amphitheatre was another artistic inventor from that time who has managed to survive, Victor Moscoso (above). He's not only one of the major founding artists of the early Zap Comix, but he also designed many of the famous psychedelic posters of the 1960s for the Avalon Ballroom, Grateful Dead, and others which have ended up on museum walls. He also produced the logo art for this year's Mountain Play production of "Hair" (check out his website by clicking here to buy a signed copy of the "Hair" poster and other pieces).

Victor turned out to be the perfect companion for Sunday's trip into the time machine, partly because neither of us had ever labored under any illusions, pro or con, about the hippie scene because we both lived through it.

In fact, neither Victor nor myself particularly liked the musical when it first came out, looking upon it as crass commercialization of a young people's scene by New York theatre people, which it was.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we both turned out to be utterly charmed by The Mountain Play's production of "Hair," forty years down the road.

This was partly because it doesn't get any more authentically "Original Hippie" than the top of Mount Tamalpais, where the Harmonic Convergence took place not that many years ago just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

The book of the musical by Jerome Ragni and James Rado was always a sketchy mess, about two fairly unlikeable New York area characters, Berger and Claude, hanging out doing drugs and having sex with "their tribe" in the East Village while waiting to become cannon fodder in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the piece hasn't dated a bit in its anti-war stance, and the production wisely doesn't underline Iraq because it's not necessary. The similarities were staring the audience in the face.

Not holding up so well is the play's attitudes towards women which are fairly neanderthal, though "Easy To Be Hard" and especially "Frank Mills" are definitely mitigating tunes. The racial attitudes are also interesting, focusing mostly on black and white. My only complaint about the production, actually, is that I wish the young, energetic cast had been more Bay Area rainbow-colored and not quite so white.

The real reason to check out this production is for the great musical score by Galt MacDermot which is aging beautifully. The musical is essentially an operatic string of songs, mostly for a large chorus, and the Canadian composer is a magpie borrower of at least twenty different musical styles that somehow work together.

Most of the creators of "Hair" were destroyed by its worldwide success, but MacDermot took his wealth from the show and created a jazz band and his own small record label, Kilmarnock Records, which is still going strong (click here to get to his great website). MacDermot has recently come into another period of fame on account of having composed early, iconic "blaxploitation" film soundtracks (including "Cotton Comes to Harlem") that have been rediscovered by current rappers. He also spent much of the 1970s working on theater pieces with the Trinidad poet Derek Walcott who eventually won the Nobel Prize. MacDermot seems ripe for a major reevaluation.

The production continues for four more Sunday performances in June at 1PM and I can't recommend it highly enough, even though The Mountain Play organization did chicken out and cut the song "Sodomy" along with the traditional infamous nudity. I doubt whether either one would have caused too many lifted eyebrows in 2007, and the cast is young and sexy enough that they probably would have enjoyed it.

Hippies on Mount Tam 2: The Hike

If for no other reason, the Mountain Play organization should be applauded for figuring out how to get people out of their cars.

There's very little parking at the top of Mount Tamalpais, so they have created a huge, well-run transportation system involving various empty parking lots in the Mill Valley area which are serviced by a small army of yellow Laidlaw school buses and what look to be school bus drivers who know the treacherous mountain roads intimately.

Best of all, the buses are free and help foster a communal feeling of adventure in both directions.

The organization also encourages people to hike down the side of Mount Tamalpais after the show to downtown Mill Valley below.

We decided to try the breathtakingly beautiful three-hour, seven-mile walk.

Since I tend to be a sissy about mountain lions and rattlesnakes, it was also a pleasure to walk with young people who would look more like prey than myself.

The trail is actually a series of trails, and at certain confusing junctions there were jolly direction-givers pointing us in the right direction.

Every half hour you walk into a new microclimate...

...and about halfway down the mountain the trail starts passing through steep redwood canyons...

...with impossibly vertiginous homes perched on stilts and stairways.

The Mountain Play people will also drive down your coolers and supplies to a parking lot in downtown Mill Valley for free so you don't have to haul them down the mountain.

This is a good thing, because just when you're ready for the hike to be over, you encounter the Dipsea Stairs, a series of vertical staircases that will test every joint in your hips and knees. Plus, it doesn't help that fitness fascists are impatiently passing by as they run up and down the stairs.

At the bottom, there was a shuttle bus waiting that quickly took us to our car, which we entered while moaning, "Oh god, I'm in pain." I can't recommend both the musical and the hike enough. Check it out.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Civic Center Weekend 4: Miniature Golf Death Match

The lawns have been torn out on the Hayes Valley Green until the middle of June for resodding.

When I asked District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi why the Rec & Park Department didn't wait until the rainy season to do the replanting, he smiled somewhat incredulously and asked, "The Rec & Park Department?" as if that was all that needed to be said, and unfortunately he's right.

I'm sure there are many departments in San Francisco government that do a good job and are fully functional, but the San Francisco Rec & Park Department is famously not one of them.
They can't even get their own name right on their signage.

Supervisor Mirkarimi was at the Hayes Green on Saturday at noon to give a short speech applauding the Official Opening of the Hayes Valley "historic" miniature golf course which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (click here).

The artists from Wowhaus (click here) looked a little nervous about all the politicians but gave a gracious explanation of their art project.

Appearing in place of Gavin Newsom was one of his senior aides, Mike Farrah, who admitted he didn't know what to wear to a combination art opening, political speech, and miniature golf course outing.

Also appearing were leaders from the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and the San Francisco Art Commission, including Jill Manton, the Program Director of the Public Art Program above.

The speeches were blessedly brief and for a photo-op, there was a brief contest between the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor's Office.

Now I don't want the following news to in any way have an impact on Mirkarimi's future political career, whether he wants to be mayor of San Francisco or president of the United States, but here at "Civic Center" we have to tell the truth as we see it. And though I can't be absolutely certain on the subject, since I didn't ask, it seemed fairly obvious that Ross Mirkarimi had never played miniature golf before in his entire life.

Mike Farrah also sucked at the first two holes but at least he seemed to know what he was doing. So here's an offer, Supervisor Mirkarimi. If you would like to learn the intricacies of miniature golf, give me a ring and we'll see about a practice session some Saturday at the Hayes Valley Green.

Civic Center Weekend 3: Green Party Convention

During the dot-com gold rush in the late 1990s, the California state treasury was filled to brimming and quite a number of ornate state government office buildings were constructed...

...including a huge addition to an already existing historical building that takes up an entire block in Civic Center, bounded by McAllister and Golden Gate, and Polk and Larkin.

From its swank, open lobby there is a set of vertiginously steep stairs descending into the Milton Marks Conference Room...

...which is where the California Green Party had set up shop for a plenary session over the weekend to vote on policies, procedures, positions, and possibly candidates.

I asked Mark Salomon (above), a political analyst who works with the local Green party, to explain what was going on and he laughed.

"The Green Party on a local level is often effective and functional and creates real change," he said.

"Once you get to the state level of the Green Party, things get a little cuckoo-land, more and more divorced from any reality."

"Once you get to the national level, it gets completely surreal."

"People run around in tall, funny hats convinced that they are actually important powerbrokers leading a viable national party, and most of them are insane," he concluded.

It's the people who show up to long, boring, lightly-attended meetings who do tend to make a difference, though and more power to them.

Sitting through a lot of meetings would personally drive me to serious drink.

And from the look of the signage dotting the fancy State of California lobby, I'm not the only one.