Riff Raff

Hanson, Disco Drag, and Other Literary Endeavors True, the New Main Library isn't the hippest of places to go swimming in the pop music media pool, but Riff Raff found itself wading in the deep end of Bay Area radio history last Wednesday at the library's Koret Auditorium. Ben Fong-Torres, the San Francisco-based music writer who snagged some of Rolling Stone's best stories during its glory days in the '60s and '70s, dropped by to read from his latest book, The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio. Fong-Torres brought some luminaries from Bay Area radio history with him: Tommy Saunders and Russ "The Moose" Syracuse, who spun hits for KYA in its mid-'60s heyday, as well as long-time KFRC DJ Dr. Don Rose (ne Rosenberg), who reminisced about his years in the trade -- and his abrupt, programming-driven firing in 1986 -- with astonishing good humor. Since the number of Top 40 radio stations has been steadily declining in recent years, we asked Fong-Torres whether he thought Top 40 was a better music format back in the days of Saunders, Rose, and Syracuse. A true believer in the power of pop music to the end, he answered, "That's assuming a particular taste in music. To another set of ears, the Top 40's perfect. It's still democratic, and there's good music from various strands, from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Leann Rimes to Hanson." Okay, so we quibble on the definition of "good music," but the point's well taken. Whether radio programmers want to take a chance on that sort of diversity is another matter entirely -- with a hint of a sigh in his voice, Fong-Torres said that "fragmentation is the f-word of radio." Sticking with our library theme, the New Main's James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center is currently hosting "Sylvester: Metamorphosis," an exhibit devoted to the life and times of Sylvester, the transvestite disco star behind "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real," and an icon in San Francisco's gay community before succumbing to AIDS in 1988. A slide show presenting images from Sylvester's life and times has already happened at the Koret Auditorium, but the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California will do it again on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 2 p.m. in the GLHS Reading Room, 973 Market, Suite 400; call 777-5455 for details. (M.A.)

And the Winner Is ... Last week, Northern California folkie Ramblin' Jack Elliott received the prestigious National Medal of Arts. The president and the first lady presented the award to Elliott on Nov. 5 in Washington, D.C., where he and 11 other individuals were honored for their contributions to "the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States." The 68-year-old Elliott, known for his interpretations of Woody Guthrie and Roy Acuff, as well as his work with nearby folk legends such as Nevada County's Utah Phillips, joins the esteemed ranks of Fats Domino, Gregory Peck, and Ella Fitzgerald. Says Elliott in a press release: "I am truly honored to be included with such company in receiving this prestigious award. As Henry David Thoreau might add, 'What a time, what a beach, what a dog.' " (R.A.)

If It's Wednesday, It Must Be essence Words could hardly describe our excitement when essence, our favorite local post-capitalization singer/songwriter, graced us with a custom-made song baring her soul to the Weekly ("Words that Rhyme," Nov. 4). We're flattered, really we are. But we're hard-headed folks here at Riff Raff central, and flattery goes only so far. So, Ms. essence's hopes for a "big four-star review" notwithstanding, we're sticking with our trading cards for the time being. Here we find her presenting a rare and intriguing combination of foreboding vamp (those Medusa-esque gothic locks!) and approachable waif (that please-love-me pout!). We'll have more samples of photographic epistemology as we stumble over them. (M.A.)

Spin Control Clad in a tuxedo, Invisibl Skratch Piklz lead turntablist DJ Q-Bert held a press conference worthy of a rock star last Saturday. The purpose of the gathering, held in the basement of San Francisco's Grand Hyatt Hotel, was to announce the release of his first solo full-length album, Wave Twisters. Normally, a CD premiere isn't worthy of such a classy gathering -- 50-plus reporters and photographers were there -- but as Q-Bert explained, it's no ordinary project. "It's a scratch album where every song is a chapter," he said. "Basically, it's the soundtrack to an animated movie we're currently putting together." That soundtrack, featuring contributions by ex-Pikl DJ Disk, DJ Flare, and Giant Robot 2 guitarist Buckethead, provides the music for a Yellow Submarine-style animated movie for the hip-hop generation. It tells the tale of a space-faring dentist who battles villains on a quest to spread the lost art of hip hop to the far reaches of the universe. Q-Bert says fans will be able to see it as early as next year. "We will tour the video with the Piklz next year," said Q-Bert, "but there is still a lot of work to do until then." Wave Twisters and the first single, "Sneak Attack," are currently available on the Piklz's own Galactic Butt Hair Records. (R.A.)

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