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What Happens Here Gets Heard: Lessons from Four Years in the Trenches of San Francisco Music 

Wednesday, Jul 23 2014
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Lars Ulrich is not a scary man. He is short, Danish, and gabby. He often wears gym shorts onstage. But at the Fillmore that night, Lars Ulrich wasn't the one making threats. He was just delivering them.

"If you fuck with him, he will beat your ass," the short drummer squawked.

This was a guest-filled Metallica 30th anniversary concert, so there were plenty of characters around capable of beating most anyone's ass if they felt fucked with. But everyone in the crowd seemed to pretty much know who Ulrich was talking about. He was coming on next. And even if they were deeply unhappy this person was here — viewing his presence as a distraction from the sorts of things Metallica ought to be doing, or even as a betrayal of Metallica-ness altogether — no one in the Fillmore that night attempted the slightest bit of fuckery the moment Lou Reed walked onstage. For the maybe 15 minutes the former Velvet Underground singer stood there, looking wrinkled and tired and like someone who'd reinvented rock music a few times in his life, the heretics were reverent. Or at least polite.

Unfortunately, the best thing about Reed and Metallica playing together on Dec. 7, 2011, was the mere fact of Reed's presence — his last live appearance, it would turn out, in San Francisco. None of the songs — not their clumsy bro-down on "White Light/White Heat," nor any of the ludicrously overwrought and grating material from their then-new joint album Lulu — achieved much besides demonstrating the heft of Metallica's guitars, a fact already well-established by, like, 1986.

That Wednesday night at the Fillmore did, however, cause me to rethink the place of San Francisco music in the national scene.

There's long been a sense of inferiority overshadowing the musical output of the Bay Area, a feeling that what happens here is underappreciated by the outside world. Even with an ocean of talented but largely unknown acts, and a small cohort of platinum rockers like Metallica, Green Day, and (ugh) Train, the S.F. region occupies a tenuous space in the musical landscape. It's not an all-out Media Capital like Los Angeles or New York, where the major labels and studios and other industry machinery are permanently installed. It's not the Mecca of an iconic sound like Nashville. In the '90s, Seattle caused necks around the world to snap to attention; the Bay Area hasn't really done that since the '60s. And S.F. certainly isn't an easygoing haven for musicians like Austin is. If local acts or events here wanted a national reputation, they've mostly had to build it the hard way — through sales, touring, media coverage, and luck — or flee to one of the two cities where everything that happens is considered national music news. They couldn't expect to make a larger impact from here.

In a 2000 piece, San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin captured, and maybe fueled, some of this insecurity. Writing about the California Music Awards — originally called the Bammies (after BAM, a long-running weekly music newspaper that recently relaunched as a website) — Selvin questioned the need for the awards given "the disintegrating San Francisco music community." He fondly remembered the glamor of the event during "the cocaine-and-champagne '80s," when people like Chris Isaak, John Fogerty, and Michael Bolton would all share the stage at the end of the night, after everyone was too sloshed to either remember or give a shit. Selvin implied that at one point — from the early '70s, when Selvin started his column in the Chronicle, through the '80s — what happened here mattered, but by 2000 it didn't. Hence him sneering at that era's "provincial little S.F. music scene."

Selvin was correct that the region has never been able to reclaim the musical importance it had in the '60s. The Bay Area sometimes feels like a phantom limb hanging off the corpus of American music, an influence and a breeding ground that's never totally understood. Its sounds are propelled by the endless diversity and progressive values and resplendent natural surroundings that define this place. But the rest of the country doesn't necessarily get all that, or care. So Bay Area music folks have nursed feelings that their successes and milestones aren't as successful or important as they should be — and that when they do arrive, they go under-acknowledged outside of the region. Perhaps they're right.

Or perhaps they were right.

At the Fillmore that evening in December 2011, Lou Reed was forced to confront the one subset of humanity that probably hated him most: hardcore Metallica fans. They viewed Lulu as an abomination, a meandering blemish on Metallica's burnished, invulnerable sheen. And these diehard Metallica fans were in turn forced to greet their Cain, and suffer the further indignity of treating him respectfully.

It was Lou Reed vs. Metallica fans! It was — it had to be — the weirdest, funniest, most interesting thing happening in American music that night. And it was happening right on this hilly, fog-beaten little peninsula. (How it compared to Michael Bolton drunkenly jamming with John Fogerty and Chris Isaak, we cannot say.) Up in the VIP boxes at the Fillmore sat David Fricke, the longtime Rolling Stone senior editor, sliding his head in a sort of slow-motion chicken-jerk to the din. It was the rock equivalent of Anderson Cooper doing a live shot from a corner in your neighborhood: You knew something important was happening here.

In four years of covering music for SF Weekly, there were many nights I had the feeling that something important was happening here. Yet increasingly, it seemed that others — media, industry, and fans outside the Bay Area — had that feeling, too. In the local music landscape that's developed over the last half-decade or so, many of our one-off events and annual festivals get covered and praised across the country. Many of our local acts find success, sometimes wildly so, on national and international stages. Outside attention comes to local artists earlier in their careers, whether they can capitalize on it or not. And even our weirdest upstarts often command the headlines, if not always the praise, of the national media. It's not the '60s all over again, but there has been marked change from the early 2000s. Bay Area music, like the region itself, has a higher profile now than it did a decade ago — one that comes with its own problems.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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