Seeing -- and Writing and Playing -- Red

Elder statesman

In these days of hounding the homeless and embracing wiretaps, it helps to laugh. Fortunately, our fearsome leader, George W. Bush, knows what we need and delivers -- with a pretzel to the larynx and broken blood vessels under the eye.

"I'm only sorry it wasn't a burrito," laughs renowned author and aural prankster Joel Schalit when I bring up GWB's attempt at eating and watching TV at the same time. "I'm just enamored of the fact that he was shown to be fragile."

Schalit's response makes sense, given that he's spent the past decade pointing out the fragile thought processes of religious zealots, punk "radicals," and political nincompoops. With his now-defunct band, the Christal Methodists, he exposed the hypocrisies of modern Christianity, while, in his articles for the Chicago/S.F. zine Punk Planet and the UC Berkeley journal Bad Subjects (both of which he co-edits), he has dissected fundamentalism, capitalism, and other isms. Over time Schalit has risen to the forefront of a new leftist culture that's postmodern and ultra-aware but still believes in the power of activism. In conjunction with the release of his first book of essays, Jerusalem Calling, Schalit's also putting out Dawn Refuses to Rise, the debut CD from his new musical outfit, Elders of Zion, on local label Incidental Music.

Dawn Refuses to Rise is a far cry from the Christal Methodists' efforts, which were structured around recordings of Christian talk show hosts telling horribly pained people that they were in the wrong. (On one particularly gruesome track, "Raped, Can I Get a Witness?," the host told a woman that it was her fault she was raped by a fellow Bible-study member.) "For me personally, I felt like I'd reached an artistic dead end with the Methodistas," Schalit says via phone from his S.F. home, "that as a member of the group I'd exhausted that particular aesthetic."

During the process of producing the Methodists' final release, the January 2000 12-inch Keep the Faith, Baby, Schalit accumulated hundreds of drum samples. When Methodist Vance Galloway gave him a box of CDs full of processed guitar riffs, Schalit began "screwing around," linking up Galloway's menacing guitar drones with the drum samples. Over the next year Schalit added breakbeats from Ubiquity's Drum Crazy and Tasty Beats compilations and live parts by keyboardist Phyllis Stein and two members of Pansy Division, drummer Luis Illades and bassist Chris Freeman. Then Schalit fleshed out the tracks with vocal samples -- Israeli children, French Maoists, Berkeley activist Mario Savio, and others -- lending a political slant to the proceedings.

According to Schalit, the voices only served to bring out what was intrinsic in the music. "I've always believed that there was political meaning inherent in instrumental music," he explains. "I was just trying to narratively bring it to the fore." To that end, Schalit uses a Yom Kippur sermon to add weight to "Hymn for a New October War," a track he crafted on the day Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited a holy site for Jews and Muslims and, some say, provoked the second Palestinian intifada. To show his hope for the burgeoning anti-globalization movement of the last few years in "Future Avant-Garde Society," Schalit juxtaposes a 1970 radio caller saying, "Life is poverty, life is shit, life is jail," with recent anti-capitalist demonstrators in Washington, D.C., chanting, "This is what democracy sounds like." For "What's Your Badge Number?" Schalit downloaded a sample of a protester at the 2000 Republican National Convention standing up for his inalienable rights by asking a cop the title question. "I also wanted to find a way to artistically interact with those events and give my own personal viewpoint," Schalit says.

In Jerusalem Calling, named after an Israeli bootleg of a Clash album, Schalit offers plenty of controversial viewpoints, documenting what he considers Israel's nationalist compulsion for war, the overuse of the word "fascist," and punk's false pretense of anti-commercialism. This last subject, tackled in a chapter called "Down and Out With Rock and Roll," focuses on the successful mainstreaming of alternative and punk culture. Schalit points out that the culture survives not only on the belief that buying the right things can set you free, but that creating them can do so, too. (Of course, he's currently plugging two new projects, but neither has much chance of being as big as grunge, for example.) The best summation of what makes both the book and the album so interesting comes from a chapter called "Seeing Red": "Nothing is ever as simple as it first seems, I reminded myself, least of all culture's relationship to politics."

Joel Schalit reads with Daniel Buckman, author of Water in Darkness, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Modern Times (888 Valencia at 20th Street). Admission is free; call 282-9246 or visit www.mtbs.com.

 
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