Brian Moss walks along La Playa, a block from Ocean Beach, past the Safeway, past the condos, in the pouring rain. “It's gotta be around here somewhere,” he says.
The “it” Moss speaks of is a plaque — the last remaining vestige of Playland at the Beach, the once-towering amusement park and midway that brought, in the words of the corroded bronze monument we eventually stumble upon, “days of fun and laughter” to generations of children growing up in San Francisco until its closing in 1972.
Playland at the Beach is also the title of the new EP by Great Apes, the modern San Francisco punk band fronted by Moss, who happens to live just blocks from where Laughing Sal alternately entertained and terrified children; where the Big Dipper boasted an 80-foot drop; where It's-Its were born and where Orson Welles filmed his famous finale for The Lady of Shanghai.
But the record isn't simply a nostalgic look back. Playland at the Beach is simultaneously the most scathing and poetic indictment yet from a local band of the current changing face of San Francisco. At turns angry, contemplative, and riddled with local landmarks, the record — released digitally this week and celebrated at a Dec. 6 show at Winters Tavern in Pacifica — threads the city's rich history into the current predicament of pushing out its marginalized population and, by extension, losing a sizable chunk of its culture.
“What the city is essentially becoming is a homogenized, vanilla, adult Disneyland for the rich,” Moss says, sitting near Playland's plaque. “And with that, you're basically erasing a cultural landscape of artists — or, as I'm referencing in the songs, certain elements of what people might deem as filth, but what's really the raw, human diversity that I believe makes cities great. And with the sterility of a city like that, you're gonna lose a large portion of the arts community, if not the whole thing.”
The converse is that when art has something against which to kick, it thrives creatively. Moss has fronted well-known bands like The Wunder Years, The Ghost, Hanalei, and the one-night-only novelty band Jahbreaker. But Playland at the Beach is among his strongest, boldest musical statements thus far. And throughout the song cycle, familiar sites from Baghdad-by-the-Bay take on a narrator's voice, referencing City Lights, the Castro, the Women's Building, Harvey Milk, and Valencia Street (“which, to me, right now,” Moss says, “I want there to be Xanax dispensers on every corner.”)
The tone is set from the opening track, “New Rough, Old Diamonds (A Conversation Between Vesuvio and Specs),” which decries North Beach's new clientele in popped collars and stilettos, and longs for Gregory Corso, Barbary Lane, and “the maritime and reckless / the urchins from the park.” The following track “Milk: It Does a City Good (By the Civic Center Stairs)” imagines the culture of greased palms and backroom deals surrounding Harvey Milk, “a healing hand for the outcasts' reach,” and the positive legacy he left for all marginalized populations.
In “Paint Job (The Lament of 1492 Valencia Street),” a remodeled apartment building rues the neighborhood glut of Lyft cars and Google buses while longing for the vibrancy of culture — the “chorus of language,” the scent of pozole — that once kept the neighborhood lively. It might be the most personal song on the EP, since Moss lived in the Mission for years but at a certain point had to get out.
“I didn't want early-twentysomething white cookie-cutter arts culture,” he explains. “It's fronted as this very progressive arts community, but it's pretty transparent that that community lacks sincerity. I've been through that with punk and other circles my whole life, and now, in my 30s, I'm not interested in playing that game.”
A schoolteacher by day, Moss carves out just enough of a living to pay rent on a one-bedroom apartment shared with his girlfriend a block from Ocean Beach, in the Sunset. Although a deal rent-wise, the building is for sale, and he's not sure what'll happen when it sells. In this, he's hesitant to solely scapegoat the tech industry for the problems facing San Francisco, calling out in equal measure landlords and city government for aiding and abetting a landscape in which the working class has no viable means to survive in the city they serve. “At the risk of sounding like a punk rock cliché, hyper-capitalism in my opinion truly brings out the worst in people,” Moss says. “And it's very, very animalistic.”
And yet for all its unrest, Playland at the Beach ends on a reconcilatory, peaceful note. The title track that closes the record is sung from the point of view of the giant wooden windmill just blocks from Moss' house, assessing the years of culture it's seen — the carnival midway, the Family Dog gatherings, the Park Chalet, the beaming children outside Playland's gates. Weathered by salt, sand, and fog, the song's narrator remembers the Playland that once was, the Sutro Baths, the Camera Obscura — but also accepts the winds of change: “Dilapidated, but I feel fine / Oh, What's the point in longing for eaves left behind? / The fog will ebb, past the ruins of the pier / And where the pilings stood, new structure will appear.”
Moss sounds a similarly peaceful tone, sitting and smoking on the spot of the old Playland.
“There are things worth fighting for,” he says, looking at the faceless buildings that have arisen in the area. “And there are things where shaking a cane doesn't really serve much purpose, and will only cause you anguish. Life, and history, is full of ups and downs, and I think that in a certain light there needs to be faith in that. That things will come back up again.”