There are certain artists to whom you can't be indifferent: Either you love them or you hate them, but there's no in between. These acts make you feel so strongly that when you see them live you either kiss your neighbor or reach for earplugs and a barf bag. Personally, I have nightmares about being trapped in a tiny club with local heavy metal goth group Mutilated Mannequins. Or, worse yet, Thoth.
Thoth used to be a ubiquitous part of my life, back when I sold knishes at street fairs for extra dough (pun intended, but maybe not appreciated, unless you are from New York, where they sell these deep-fried potato creations in Jewish delis). Every week, usually in the late afternoon after the yuppies and tourists had had a few beers, S.K. Thoth would sidle up to the crowds in his gold lamé loincloth, chain-mail vest, and little else. He'd play his violin and sing in a made-up, vaguely Middle Eastern language, his tone so shrill that I'd grind my teeth to a powder. It wasn't just the music that bugged me; it was that I perceived Thoth to be a freak show. Pay a quarter and watch the buffed guy in a headdress chant and dance. The only argument you could make in his favor was the one some people use for Madonna and strippers: It's not exploitation if he's the one in charge.
In September 1999 my ambivalence was rendered moot when Thoth got evicted from his S.F. apartment and moved back to his childhood home of New York City. Then, during a trip to NYC in October 2000, I came across Thoth performing his solo opera, The Herma, in the Angel Tunnel in Central Park. He cut as eccentric a figure as ever, but now he had a better-realized concept, carried out with multiple voices, characters, and dance movements. As I watched enraptured children peeking out from behind their parents' legs, I saw Thoth in a new light — more as an artist than as a freak. It can't be easy walking down the street practically naked, singing in a language that sounds foreign to everyone. I couldn't help but wonder what drives a (mostly) sane person to do such a thing.
The answer can be found in Thoth, a 42-minute documentary about him that's showing at the S.F. Independent Film Festival this week. The portrait came about because Sarah Kernochan, director of the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary feature Marjoe, witnessed Thoth's tunnel show in late 2000. “She heard me singing and couldn't tell who or what it was, so she came to investigate,” Thoth writes via e-mail. “She returned several times to make sure I wasn't crazy, and then when she was satisfied that I wasn't too crazy, she asked if she could do a documentary on me.” Kernochan filmed throughout the first half of 2001, taping interviews with the artist, his S.F.-based girlfriend, and his mother, Elayne Jones, the first black person to play with the New York Philharmonic and as a principal player in the San Francisco Symphony. (She ended up suing the latter for racial discrimination in 1974, unsuccessfully.)
In the film, Thoth — whose real name is Stephen Kaufman — talks at length about how the venom directed at his biracial family caused him to retreat into his head, away from his peers and from his own body. Years later, after he'd moved to the Bay Area and given up his classical violin training, he discovered a love for meditation, dance, and bisexuality. Taking the name of the Egyptian god of arts, Thoth began playing in BART stations and parks and at street fairs, both solo and with a four-piece band. He invented an imaginary world, the Festad, full of dragons and hermaphrodites, and set about transcribing its history (see his Web site, www.skthoth.com). Meanwhile, he wandered through S.F. on “walkabouts,” discussing spirituality, sexuality, and the comfort of a good skirt with anyone he met.
There is no doubt that Thoth is a screwball, but Thoth peels back the veneer of eccentricity and lets you see the sanity — and the core of sadness — behind his chosen way of life. As one tourist says to Thoth in the film, “I hope you win the lottery so you can never stop playing the violin.”
Thoth will show at the S.F. Independent Film Festival as part of “Chock Full of Notes,” a program of short films about music that also features The Emperor Has No Clothes, a riff on a naked saxophone player, and Champion Blues, a bio of powerhouse blues singer and single mother of seven Mickey Champion. If you're still in the mood for some musical imagery, check out Einstürzende Neubauten: Listen With Pain, a 57-minute look at the cockatoo hairdos and bizarre noise experiments of this seminal German band, and We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'N Roll, a frightening look at the white, middle-class American habitués of Ozzfest, directed by Penelope Spheeris of Decline of Western Civilization fame. For times, venues, and prices, call 820-3907 or go to www.sfindie.com.