You don't have to be a scholar to appreciate the colorful history of San Francisco. From resident eccentrics like Emperor Norton through the wild and woolly Barbary Coast era to the rat's maze of opium dens that once covered Chinatown, our city boasts a past that's twisted, vice-ridden, and altogether intriguing. For instance, did you know that the ground beneath the regal Palace of the Legion of Honor served as a pauper's cemetery from 1865 to 1905? And that Palace contractors — in a scene reminiscent of Poltergeist — skimped when it came to the costly relocation of the bodies to Colma, and simply moved the headstones instead?
Accredited archaeologist Paula Frazer should know. When she wasn't gigging around town with her fey Southern Gothic combo Tarnation last year, she was officially on duty at the site, excavating some 400-plus cadavers, many of which were perfectly mummified in their vintage Victorian garments.
“Back in the 1800s, the whole area was just sand dunes, and people figured nobody would ever use it for any reason, so they'd take a horse and buggy out there and bury people — predominantly Irish and Scottish,” says the 32-year-old ace digger, who — with her porcelain skin, crystal-blue eyes, and long brown hair plaited back over her shoulders — looks oddly Victorian herself.
“Usually in a situation like that,” she adds, “they would have grave-removal services of some sort, but I guess because of the age of the place, they wanted to have archaeologists do it.” Frazer feels that the weirdest thing about the interment was that it remained a secret for so long. “With all the construction workers involved in building the Palace, you'd think somebody would've gotten drunk and said, 'You know, we're erecting that building and there's a bunch of dead people out there!' “
Frazer has also burrowed into the Spanish adobe foundations of the Presidio, where she unearthed shards of hand-painted ceramics that date back to the 1700s. Archaeology is in her blood. “Every time I see a building coming down, I'll go and peek through the fence to see if I spot anything like antique bottles,” she confesses over lunch at a Potrero Hill pizzeria. But the Legion of Honor experience has haunted her, insinuating itself into a Tarnation tune — “The Hand,” a Duane Eddy-ish dirge and the first single from Tarnation's new Gentle Creatures release on 4AD. In it, she tells of sensing a spectral graveside hand upon her: “When I felt the darkness gather and the silence settle in/ And the many faces that surrounded me and the calm inside my head.”
Frazer stops eating her salad for a minute and turns deathly serious. “There are quite a few ghost stories in my songs,” she says, “and 'The Hand' is about how working [at the Palace] was really scary — a truly eerie experience. I mean, they had guards out there, because people were trying to steal the bones, and apparently a couple of skulls were stolen right before Halloween.”
The conversation veers further toward the morbid: the heavy-breathing ghost who stalked an Arkansas house where Frazer lived; her early dealings with death, via a Southern neighbor's pig farm, where this week's Babe and Gordy were systematically butchered for next week's bacon sausages; the Faulkner-vernacular connotations of the name “Tarnation,” which Frazer chose because “it has a certain darkness about it, but it's funny, too.”
Think you've got her pegged as a nouveau Morticia Addams? Close, but no cigar. Flannery O'Connor — perhaps the apotheosis of Southern Gothic — reached her zenith with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a black-humor horror story about a talkative grandmother who jabbers away while highwaymen routinely usher her family out to the woods to commit murder. If you get the grim as well as the grin in this piece — naturally one of Frazer's favorite works — you'll understand Tarnation.
Gentle Creatures is dark, make no mistake. Songs like “Lonely Lights” and “Game of Broken Hearts” are steeped in the sadness and tear-in-your-beer melancholy of traditional pedal steel country. But there's an ornamental precision to Frazer's tortured take on Patsy Cline: In a recent performance at Rough Trade Records with her new three-piece backing band, she hit every fluttery falsetto note of newer numbers like “Idly,” lithely strumming their soft melodies on her big hollow-bodied Gretsch. It was gorgeous but unquestionably spooky, the perfect soundtrack for a hearthside reading of Poe. Maybe even Derleth or Lovecraft.
Frazer chugged into San Francisco in the early '80s as part of the punky outfit Frightwig. Her finest moment? Howling her signature ode to convenience stores, “Stop and Go”: “Stop and Go/ Stop and Go/ Drive in fast/ Drive out slow.” Dues paid in Cloiter and Virginia Dare led to Tarnation, Mach 1 in '92, which never made it to a studio. Mach 2 — featuring drummer Michelle Cernuto, ex-S.F. Seals axeman Lincoln Allen, and steel guitarist Matt Sullivan — made it onto the I'll Give You Something to Cry About indie debut and the sophomore Gentle Creatures, but recently disbanded. Mach 3 — with Frazer firmly in control — bowed in at Rough Trade. Musically, she's still digging.
“I'm trying to work out some emotional stuff, even though every song is different,” Frazer says. “Some songs are written as a story, or a ballad, and other songs are true.” And each is shrouded in strong moral fiber, she says, thanks to “my father being a Presbyterian minister and my mother playing organ in the church. My parents always understood me — my mom gave me piano lessons at 4, and bought me my first guitar at 12.” A two-year stint with a Berkeley-based Bulgarian women's choir uncovered her vocal potential, but her falsetto trick she ascribes directly to “Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, who did a lot of weird yodeling stuff with their voices.”
But when the Tarnation workday is done, Frazer remains — first and foremost — in love with San Francisco. “The thing that draws me here is that I think it's a really beautiful city, and it's got such depth to it,” she says, jumping into another obscure historical yarn concerning the floating wharf-anchored buildings that once dotted the harbor. It's a particularly sunny day, and Frazer wants to walk around Potrero, take in the sights.
“Isn't it a beautiful afternoon?” she smiles, then — in perfect Tarnation style — starts discussing the merits of Night of the Hunter, the black-and-white thriller that pits sadistic preacher Robert Mitchum against two fugitive children whom he's determined to kill. In fact, she wants to rent the video to memorize the somnolent song the little girl sings as she escapes down the river in a boat. “Wouldn't that number be great for my upcoming European acoustic tour?” she asks sweetly.
Could be. At any rate, it sure beats shoveling corpses.
Tarnation plays Wed, Aug. 23, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.