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Tears of a Clown 

With The Mission Is Not Impossible, local composer and instrument builder Peter Whitehead feels a neighborhood's pain

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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Over the last decade, Peter Whitehead has gained a reputation as an eccentric musician and composer who builds his own instruments out of ordinary household materials such as salad bowls, spoons, and lampshades. With these unusual devices he creates evocative compositions for dance and film as well as tunes with offbeat lyrics that fall somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Jack Kerouac. His solo act often resembles a one-man three-ring circus -- part Lenny Bruce, part Charlie Chaplin -- but it's more than just yuks: His comic style is sharp, socially conscious, and often quite sober. "The clown," he explains, "is actually saying something very serious."

Whitehead's latest project, The Mission Is Not Impossible, is a series of performance pieces and songs that will be performed this week at the ODC Theater. The show, which is arguably his most significant effort to date, examines the San Francisco neighborhood's struggle to maintain its identity amid impinging gentrification (aka Greedy Landlord Syndrome). Heading up a small combo of multi-instrumentalists and singers, including ex-members of local jazz group Contraband, Whitehead plans to showcase his songwriter side, which is worlds apart from his soundtrack-composer persona. "His instrumental music and his songs are very different from each other, almost as if they were created by two different artists," notes choreographer Maxine Moerman, who has worked with Whitehead on a pair of dance pieces and a short film.

A London native, Whitehead grew up in the golden era of pop music, when the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and early Pink Floyd ruled the British airwaves. Originally a sculptor and recreational guitarist, his wanderlust led him to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, then to Santa Cruz, and finally, in 1981, to San Francisco, where he has remained.

After local world-music radio shows sparked his interest in other cultures, this consummate traveler and self-styled ethnomusicologist sojourned in a number of far-flung places, including India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Morocco. He started building his own instruments while abroad, modeling them after the traditional lyres and lutes of ancient indigenous cultures.

By 1986, Whitehead had settled in the heart of the Mission at a live-work loft on 16th and Valencia. The region, which has long been a haven for the city's multiethnic working class, is symbolic for him of "an honest representation of the way this society works." Of course, he's disheartened by the ongoing disenfranchisement of "dozens of friends" -- regular folks who've been shuffling from place to place while tank-sized SUVs cruise past on their way to tony new restaurants.

Whitehead places this imbalance on center stage during The Mission, most notably in the nontraditional prose work "How Do You Like the Neighborhood?" Wandering the area's back alleys and bistros, his character sadly notes, "Overnight someone had spray-painted in red, "Hang Mumia,' right across Nelson Mandela's face. ... Right across Carlos Santana's guitar in big black letters: "Lynch Mumia Abu-Jamal Now!' A new element was evident in the neighborhood."

Despite the grim reality of the "Neighborhood" narrative, Whitehead still manages to crack a few jokes, firing off a series of wry observations about the neighborhood's wannabes and truth seekers. He juxtaposes the archetypal hard-rock band Mincemeat Rat Liver, whose lead singer "had recently been replaced by someone with more tattoos," with a young woman "on her way from her class at Really Really Difficult Yoga to help her friend who had just moved here from Rhode Island with her feng shui." Then there are the knowing pokes at the area's die-hard activists and alternative lifestylers -- Dykes Not Bombs, Bikes Not Dykes, Bikes Not Books, Books Not Burgers, Dance Not Drugs -- all of whom, of course, have been uprooted from their homes.

Some of the best moments of the show occur when Whitehead celebrates the Mission's percolating stew: "Outside [the restaurant] Pasta Makes Me Puke, the Chinese waiters were eating burritos, the Mexican waiter was eating a piroshki, the Lebanese cook was eating Vietnamese spring rolls, the Indian pizza chef was eating sushi ... and the waitress from We Used to Be Crepes 'Til the Rent Went Up went for fish and chips at the Korean restaurant next door to We Bury Your Stiffs But We Also Tow Your Cars Funeral Home." In these spoken pieces, Whitehead prefers to "walk that line where you can't tell if it's funny or it's serious" rather than bore audiences with bleeding-heart tirades.

Thankfully, this hopelessly sincere ironist is no proselytizer. "I don't look at the world as if I have any answers," says Whitehead, who nonetheless could use some himself. Studio Valencia -- the small but essential performance space he calls home -- was recently put on a month-to-month lease, the death knell in this dot-com era. Still, Whitehead is tentatively optimistic about the future.

One of The Mission's more traditionally structured tunes, "Everything's Falling Apart," illustrates Whitehead's willingness to cast the bleakest scenario in a positive light: "There's no money in the bank/ And I've got no job/ And I'm not even sure if I want one/ No, I don't want one." Rather than craft this paean to paucity in typical fashion -- e.g., woe-is-me balladry -- Whitehead gives the piece a slightly madcap edge and an almost farcical delivery that merges a kind of roadhouse blues with a goin' fishin' attitude.

His living situation isn't the only thing on tenterhooks these days. In fact, Whitehead's whole sense of self is going through some major repositioning. On top of his decision to ditch soundtracks and instrument-building for pop songwriting, Whitehead just renounced his ties to Mother England. Making the transition from resident alien to full-fledged citizen of the U.S.A. (ironically, two days after the most controversial election of our time) was a tough call for the 48-year-old artist. "There's a sort of process that you go through where you leave a place and you start to romanticize it," he says. "You can live somewhere else for so long, but you still have it in the back of your mind that you'll go back. [But] when I visit there I feel like I've developed in such a way that I no longer live in the English way -- I feel outside it."

Whitehead captures this paradoxical dilemma in "The Immigrant Song," a somewhat uncharacteristic, down-tempo tune: "I always thought I'd leave here/ I never thought I'd stay/ So many times I've gone away/ Still I've come back again/ And I've left so many places/ So much I've left behind/ My country and my family/ Freedom has its price." Implausibly, Whitehead says, "I feel like I'm almost ready to start doing my real work." It's a strange, gutsy statement from a man whose former London schoolmates are about to welcome grandkids into the fold.

Toward that end, he is about to release his first song-based album, Now This, on local label Out of Round. It's an auspicious effort, rife with rich soundscapes, memorable melodies, and striking arrangements that recall original Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett and Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles. What's most compelling about the album is the clarity of Whitehead's vision and the honesty that shines through on tunes like "Blame Your Mother," "Everything's Falling Apart," and "The Immigrant Song." His capacity to bear it all sans the self-referential whining of so many confessional artists gives this disc a human appeal that complements its exotic orchestration.

For Whitehead, this magical merger is a long time coming. "I had to figure out what is me," he explains. "I'm not into some sort of fantasy world. I want to write songs that represent my own life."

About The Author

Sam Prestianni

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