Friday, June 26, 2009

Paying Tribute to Paul Williams, A Pioneering Rock N' Roll Writer

(Article published in today's print and web edition of the San Francisco Examiner)

Paul Williams has been called the father of rock journalism; he launched "Crawdaddy!" which was one of earliest magazines to cover the changing world of rock n' roll before the revolutionary Summer of Love, and he played a part in some of the most influential musical and cultural events of the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Williams is now suffering from early onset dementia, brought about from brain injuries he received in a bike accident nearly 15 years ago. He requires full-time care, and his many friends and fans are coming together to help his family cover the costs and to lend their emotional support. At a benefit show on Sunday night, John Doe, Jello Biafra, Mojo Nixon, Mark Eitzel, former Rolling Stone scribe Ben Fong-Torres and more take to the stage for song and spoken word to pay tribute to the groundbreaking writer and publisher.

“The fact that he has such passion for the music and for particular artists, his style would just leap in there, with no attempt at what might be considered objective journalism or criticism,” says Ben Fong-Torres. “Whatever he felt was right out there, naked, and I think that made his writing more special and appealing to people and unique in the field of rock writing, which he helped pioneer.”

Williams founded the independent magazine “Crawdaddy!” when he was only 17 years old, and he became part of the fabric of the '60s rock counterculture, not only writing about it, but also participating in many historic happenings—from driving to Woodstock with the Grateful Dead, to staying with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “Bed in for Peace."

“[Williams] showed me that music writing can and should come from a very personal place, that of a fan, and it can oftentimes lead to some pretty out there, existential stuff,” says Jocelyn Hoppa, current Editor-in-Chief of “Crawdaddy!”

“He set the tone for how writing about rock music should take a more serious approach rather than just what an artist’s favorite color was; Paul's writing was a conduit into how the art of the musical experience lived within the listener.”

If You Go:
Paul Williams Benefit
Where: Red Devil Lounge, 1695 Polk St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20
Contact: (415) 921-1695,

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Haunted Hornet Ghost Quest

(Article "Ghost Chattin' With Kristyn Gartland" published today in the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Having survived the ferocious naval campaigns of World War II, the U.S.S. Hornet now stands as a living museum in Alameda, where guests can learn about the ship’s role in history, and, according to several eyewitness accounts, one can also catch a glimpse of the ghostly spirits of her departed crewmen. The 893-foot long aircraft carrier has recently been featured on paranormal-themed television programs such as the hit Sci-Fi channel show “Ghost Hunters,” where spectral apparitions were said to have been spotted roaming the decks in the dead of night.

Fans of that show, along with “Ghost Hunters International” and A&E’s “Paranormal State,” are all in for a special treat this weekend, when respective cast members including Kristyn Gartland, Donna LaCroix, Angela Alderman, Chip Coffey and more will be on board giving lectures, meeting with participants, and even leading late night expeditions aboard the floating bridge to the past.

Kristyn Gartland, who works as the case manager for The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS, the group featured on “Ghost Hunters,” joined the team after going through a long series of personal experiences and incidents at her own home.

“I guess I had stuff happening for years, but I just didn’t understand it—my grandmother had died, and I used a Ouija board; I brought in a whole bunch of stuff using that, so I became a client.”

The ongoing nature of her experiences brought her in contact with Jason Hawes, the founder of TAPS, who eventually invited her to join the team, which he founded in 1990.

“It just kept going for years and years, so Jay said to me, ‘I don’t know why you don’t just join the group, and help us,’” Gartland laughs.

In the seven years since joining TAPS, Gartland has seen her fair share of unexplained phenomenon—but she has also had to sort through a lot of reports and requests that are rooted in easily explainable reasons, such as improper mixing of prescription medication.

“There are a good majority that we can say ‘This isn’t paranormal’ over the phone, and that is based on years of experience doing this, so we can debunk a lot.”

There are, however, still a good deal of situations that require a physical visit; in these cases Gartland will delegate the response based on location and severity. Some of the more active cases end up broadcast on the “Ghost Hunters” show, which has been on the air since 2004.

“We get requests from all over the country, and other countries as well. We get a ton of emails, and I have to go through them and set them up, either with us doing it or another group that’s closer to them, and we just kind of go from there.”

Of all her experiences and travels with the TAPS team, one place that stands out in particular to Gartland is the Trans-Allegany Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, a now-closed hospital for the mentally ill originally built in the 1850s.

“That one gave me the creeps,” she admits, although she says that easily startled nerves are not something that a seasoned paranormal investigator usually has after several years of experience—but even they can still get an uneasy feeling when hunting around in the dark.

“I don’t like to use the word scared because it’s kind of stupid if we’re going into stuff if we’re scared, but there have been places where I have been uneasy, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that you’re walking around in a dark place, that you don’t know where you are, you have no idea where the lights are, where the exits are, anything like that, should something happen.”

The other times that she is a little more cautious are the cases when a location is reported to be haunted by inhuman entities, more commonly referred to as demons.
“Those are the ones that if you know for a fact that you have something that is inhuman, you know going in that you take the chance of getting hurt badly,” says Gartland.

During her visit to the U.S.S. Hornet on Saturday, Gartland will be giving an abbreviated version of her “Paranormal 101” class that she often teaches back at TAPS headquarters in Warwick, Rhode Island.

“I talk about the different kinds of haunting, what they normally will do, what you’re going to experience with each haunting, how you should deal with each type of category that they’re in. I do that because everybody thinks for some reason that they’re home has a portal to hell—and we have to explain to them that that is not the case,” she laughs. “It definitely gives people a new outlook.”

Gartland has been to the Hornet once before, when the “Ghost Hunters” crew taped an episode onboard the ship last September. Although she says that she didn’t have many personal experiences while investigating, she does feel that it is well worth checking back on.

“There was just a feeling of constantly somebody watching you, it was kind of weird. If it wasn’t for all the people on that ship, we wouldn’t be able to be where we are now, so it’s a grateful feeling to go back there and be able to investigate again and hopefully catch some stuff.”

Her teammates on the program, did, however manage to catch several strange goings on, including chasing a shadowy figure that seemed to vanish into a locked watertight door that apparently hadn’t been opened in years.

After Saturday’s daytime programming, which will also include an audience Q&A session, meet and greet opportunities, and other lectures, people who have purchased a special package ticket will be able to stay onboard the Hornet overnight and investigate the ship with Gartland and her companions. She has participated in several events like this before, and as one would expect, there are sometimes goof offs that don’t take the experience very seriously, but there are also those who come in acting and equipped like die hard professionals.

“Every once in a while we do get a group of people that really just have no interest in investigating, but it’s to be expected. Then we get a few that show up with more equipment than we own,” she laughs.

Gartland enjoys meeting with her fans, both those who simply like watching “Ghost Hunters,” and those who reach out for more personal and deeply felt reasons.

“I like doing these because we do get to meet people that have said to us, ‘I was never able to talk to anybody about this until the show came out,’ and it’s kind of cool to get to meet the people that finally could say what they needed to say, and feel accepted.”

As the popularity of paranormal-themed programming seems to be ever increasing these days, one could extrapolate that the acceptance of people who claim to have had an encounter with a ghost or otherworldly spirit has also increased. For those who are still afraid to tell their loved ones or seek help locally, Gartland says they can go to the TAPS website and find contact information for the nearest member of the TAPS family.

Gartland points out that TAPS and her team members are not out to convince non-believers of the existence of ghosts or the afterlife; instead they offer what they say is the evidence they’ve gathered over the years, and people can take a look at it and make up their own minds on the matter.

“You don’t want people to think that you’re just out to make them believe—when you believe is usually when you have a haunting, and then you go, ‘Oh my God, I need some help!’ It’s kind of like religion; you don’t want someone to feel like you’re a bible pusher, so I don’t want to be a paranormal pusher.”

“Haunted Hornet Ghost Quest,” Saturday, June 27. 10:30 a.m., U.S.S. Hornet, 707 W. Hornet Ave., Alameda. $50 and up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

"THEM!"-- Atomic Ants Terrorize The World In 1954 Sci-Fi Classic

At the height of the Cold War, science fiction films and monster movies were often based around themes that involved the ongoing arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; the bulk of them revolving around the unexpected results of nuclear weapons testing. One of the best of these films was “Them!” a campy romp about giant mutated ants that were born in the New Mexico desert from the fallout of the domestic testing of atomic bombs during World War II.

The film, which was released 55 years ago today, is still a highly entertaining piece of science fiction—the special effects may be somewhat crude, but the well-written storyline and convincing acting still provide for an engaging and fun viewing. James Whitmore, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actor who passed away earlier this year, stars as a small-town cop that encounters a colony of nightmarish ants that have begun to wreak havoc on the region’s residents. James Arness, who also filled the title role of the rampaging alien in 1951’s “The Thing” and later starred in the hit TV series “Gunsmoke,” joins the fight against the ants as an FBI agent sent in by the U.S. government to help the local authorities.

The genre’s requisite eccentric scientist is portrayed by Edmund Gwenn, who won an Academy Award for his role as Santa Claus in the 1947 holiday classic “Miracle On 34th Street,” while Joan Weldon stars as his daughter and the leggy love interest for Arness’ character.

Throughout the film, the arrival of (or at least the allusion to the nearby presence of) the ants is heralded by a high pitched shrieking, which, along with “Creature From The Black Lagoon,” (also released in 1954) likely provided the influence for Steven Spielberg to insert John Williams’ theme music every time the shark in “Jaws” is about to make an appearance.

Fess Parker makes a cameo as a pilot who spots a flying Queen ant in the air, and is locked up in a mental hospital to make sure that he doesn’t make his story public. Walt Disney saw Parker in this role when the film was released and quickly offered him a contract, leading to Parker’s best known part, that of Davy Crockett in several Disney productions throughout the rest of the 1950s.

The dark and serious tone of “Them!” is occasionally broken up with some comedy relief, such as when Whitmore and Arness are interviewing a drunk in the alcoholic ward of a hospital who has seen the ants. When seeing a member of the military that has accompanied the two men, the man seams to offer up a serious deal to help them, but then starts jumping up and down in bed, chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!”

One of the most hilarious moments in “Them!” however, comes from a line which is delivered devoid of any humorous tone; when Gwenn’s scientist is speaking with Whitmore and Arness after the army has bombed the ants’ first nest in the New Mexico desert with cyanide, they ask him if he thinks that all of the ants have been killed. He responds by saying, “Yes, I think the nest was thoroughly saturated.” Arness then looks at his fellow actors and says, “If I can still raise an arm after all this is over I’ll show you just how thoroughly saturated I can get.”

The climax of the film takes place in the tunnels connecting the concrete sections of the Los Angeles River, where the surviving ants have attempted to start a second colony. Although the ending almost feels a little rushed, it does provide a solid conclusion to the storyline, and in fact, it even throws in a plot twist that viewers back in 1954 probably wouldn’t have been expecting—the death of one of the main characters and heroes of the movie.

“Them!” is widely available on DVD today, and for fans of classic science fiction and monster movies, it is definitely worth a watch. You might even think a little differently the next time you see a trail of ants crawling along the kitchen counter or making their way towards your unattended picnic basket.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants Lead A Fight Against Autism

As an increasingly common diagnosis among children in the United States, Autism is affecting more and more families every year; an event being sponsored by the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park tonight aims to raise money for research into the disorder, and to reach out to those with Autism and their loved ones.

“Autism Awareness Night” will benefit community-based groups that help with the fight against Autism, and the club also hopes to help educate fans with pre-game festivities and distribution of informational materials during the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Former Giants slugger Will Clark knows first-hand the challenges facing families with autistic children—his son, 13 year old Trey, was diagnosed when he was two and a half.

“After he was diagnosed we’ve been trying to get him as much help and therapy and treatment as possible, and he has responded extremely well,” said the six-time All-Star first baseman.

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. According to recent Centers For Disease Control And Prevention numbers, 1 in 150 young children today are at risk of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a group that also includes Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, and others.

Life as a professional baseball player required Clark to travel extensively during the season, keeping him away from his family, and providing one more hurdle to overcome.

“I think the biggest challenge was that I was gone and everybody was at home,” said Clark. “The burden fell upon my wife when I was on the road, so it made it a little tougher in that regard for her.”

Clark, who played for San Francisco from 1986-1993, and retired from baseball in
2000, returned to the Giants this season to work as a special assistant in the team’s front office, mentoring younger players with the trademark intensity that earned him the nickname “The Thrill”—the same quality with which he approaches the fight against Autism, having appeared at many public events over the course of the last decade along with his wife, Lisa.

“Once I retired I was able to pitch in and help a little bit more, and take some of the burden off of her and at the same time, having a father figure around helped my son develop quite nicely,” said Clark.

In addition to the festivities on the field, fans who purchase tickets for the “Autism Awareness Night” section will receive a special edition Will Clark jersey shirt, with proceeds from each ticket sale benefiting Athletes Against Autism and Autism Speaks, two groups that strive to raise funds and awareness for Autism research, along with education and treatment programs.

“We’re trying to educate the fan base as best as we can,” said Faham Zakariaei, Special Events Manager for the Giants, who added that there will be information about Autism posted on the scoreboard’s giant screen between innings.

Several sports teams and institutions are beginning to hold Auti
sm awareness events; NASCAR held the “Autism Speaks 400” race in Dover, Delaware last month, and many Major League Baseball teams will host a similar event this season.

“There a quite a few baseball players that have autistic kids, so it’s starting to hit the baseball family quite a bit,” said Clark.

Fans can also visit an informational booth to find out about Autism in general, the signs of Autism, and the many initiatives, services and fundraisers provided by the local community and groups such as Autism Speaks, who will be holding several upcoming walks later this year.

“We hope fans will take away knowledge of what services are available in the area, and how they can get involved with local fundraising events,” said Monica Segot, the Northern California Walk Coordinator for Autism Speaks.

This is the second year that the Giants will have hosted “Autism Awareness Night,” which organizers are hopeful will be as successful as last year’s, both in fundraising and in getting the word out about the prevalent disorder.

“This is not only an outreach for families that need help—this is a big problem now in the United States,” said Clark. “And if anything it’s getting bigger, so it would benefit a lot of people to be aware of it.”

For More Information:
(415) 972-2298
(707) 778-3840

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dave Alvin Pays Tribute To A Fallen Friend

(Article published in the print edition of today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Roots rocker Dave Alvin has played with a wide variety of bands and in a number of musical partnerships over the years; from the early days of barnstorming with the Blasters, X, and the Knitters to his later mainstay groups such as the Guilty Men, the guitar slinger and songwriter extraordinaire has forged many a fruitful relationship with his fellow musicians, both on and off the stage.

One such powerful friendship was with Chris Gaffney, who played accordion and guitar with the Guilty Men, on top of a long career as a songwriter and singer steeped in the rich traditions of Americana music. The two men became close friends through the years, and when Gaffney was diagnosed with cancer in early 2008, Alvin and his other friends came to his aid, setting up a website and playing gigs in an attempt to help pay for his costly medical treatments. Unfortunately, the 57-year old Gaffney succumbed to the cancer just a couple of months after initially getting the diagnosis.

Gaffney’s death hit Alvin and all of his friends and family hard, but from the outpouring of their emotions and vetting of their grief has come two new records, Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute To Chris Gaffney, and Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women, both released earlier this month on Yep Roc Records.

The former is an inspiring celebration of Gaffney’s life and work, featuring a host of top notch musicians that called him a friend; Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Boz Scaggs and John Doe are among the many people paying homage by performing their own renditions of his songs. Alvin, who produced the album in addition to contributing the track “Artesia,” says that he views the tribute CD as his way of giving his departed friend the shot at making it he never had.

“Chris never even got a shot to screw up. I’ve known a lot of musicians, and some people got their shot and screwed it up, other people I’ve know have gotten their shot and it just didn’t work out, and then other people I’ve known got their shot and became very successful. Since he was my closest friend, and a guy that I just had limitless respect for as a musician and singer, the project for me became, ‘This is going to be Chris’ shot.’”

The tribute album was released the same day as Alvin’s debut with the Guilty Women, his new band that came together for a show at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. Alvin brought the group together after deciding to take a break from playing with the Guilty Men, the band that he had played with Gaffney in for so long.

“I just thought, well, we’ll put this on the backburner for a little while, and just do something different. When the people from Hardly Strictly called, that was the little kick in the butt that I needed, just to change things up.”

Though he had worked with most everybody in the new band at some point in the past, the collective members of the Guilty Women had not played all together before that first gig, which happened to be in front of several thousand people in Golden Gate Park. Alvin says that due to differing home bases and schedules, a formal rehearsal just wasn’t feasible, so the group simply came together about an hour before hitting the stage and practiced in a tent, going over the basic structures of the songs that he wanted to play.

“It went really well, it was a little bit like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute—it was an extreme sport,” laughs Alvin. “I like unpredictability—it just keeps things interesting; there’s a certain way that people play when they don’t know what’s coming. If you know what’s coming you’re going to go a certain way, and you get locked into it, and sometimes it’s good just to break that all apart.”

After the enthusiastic response from the audience and an offer to do an album came around, Alvin wanted to keep the same vibe as that first concert, so the band approached the recording process in the same way—no prior rehearsals. The resulting collection of songs has an infectious and liberated live feel to them, from the opening track, a re-worked version of the Blasters’ classic “Marie, Marie,” through a number of Alvin originals, covers, and tunes contributed by members of the new band.

The album ends with a boogie woogie blues version of “Que Sera Sera,” which Alvin says encapsulates the feeling and tone of many of the songs on the CD.

“Take away all the schmaltz from the original version by Doris Day, and the fatalistic nature of the lyrics—the way I view it—it’s sort of the ultimate expression of a blues philosophy in a non-blues song. It’s kind of the theme of the album.”

Info Box:

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women
7:30 p.m.
Rio Theatre
June 18