Soaring in the Air, Writhing on the Ground: Bad Unkl Sista’s ‘First Breath, Last Breath’

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I could tell the performance I was about to witness late last month was extraordinary even before entering the auditorium, just from watching the audience trickle into Z Space in San Francisco. There was a man who had somehow fused his beard with a slinky-like spiral pipe and wrapped it around his neck like a scarf. There were a few women in Betty Page/rockabilly outfits and the attendant shellacked beehive and Winehouse eyeliner. One girl’s hair resembled a Pantone swatch sheet—literally—small squares of dye checkered her shoulder-length crop. One man, who we found out later was the set designer for […]

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Studies in Sinister Toys and Figurines: Q&A With Michael Brennan

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If you’ve dined at any number of swanky Bay Area establishments, you might have unwittingly enjoyed your meal in a restaurant designed by one of the few people who is as well known and well respected for his fine art as for his commercial work. Michael Brennan has designed the interiors of such San Francisco hotspots as Farallon, Zero Zero, Fleur de Lys, and Bruno’s, and Alameda’s Miss Pearl’s Jam House, as well as Revival in Berkeley. He’s painted murals for many more places, too, including the Cliff House (also in San Francisco). ZYZZYVA’s Winter ’11 issue features images of […]

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The Staying Power of Joan Baez: Marianne Aya Omac at Yoshi’s in San Francisco

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As diverse as the music performed in concerts is, so are the appearances of the audiences. James Mollison documented a spectrum of what he calls the “tribes” of attendees in his photography project and book The Disciples, a rough census of personae that converge around the archetypes represented by the musical acts Mollison followed. The grouped images of said disciples invite one to guess, before reading the captions, which performers each had come out for. It’s not hard: men in trucker hats and denim overalls, Merle Haggard. Men holding up sagging jeans by the crotch and women whose skirts barely […]

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Who’s Afraid of the Light?: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Pelleas and Melisande’

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The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande (translated by director Rob Melrose) exploits a long, narrow, catwalk-style stage (designed by Michael Locher) to set up intense relationships among the characters. In an early scene, Golaud (Derek Fisher), the prince of Allemonde, comes upon Melisande (Caitlyn Louchard) weeping by a spring. Melisande kneels over a small rectangular pool set into the stage floor while Golaud stands far away from her at the opposite end—this relationship, in different permutations, is revisited again and again. Charmed by her beauty and strangeness, Golaud marries Melisande and takes her to live […]

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Embedding the Reader in Places He May Not Want to Be: Q&A with Joshua Mohr

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Critics have compared the writing of Joshua Mohr to that of Dostoevsky and Bukowski’s for the imagination with which he depicts grimy people clawing through a downward spiral. Following suit, Joshua Mohr’s third and most recent book, Damascus (Two Dollar Radio, 208 pages), rolls out a sooty cast of compelling characters including a Santa suit-wearing bartender, a memory haunted ex-Marine, a controversial performance artist looking to hit it big, and Shambles, “the patron saint of hand jobs.” They all struggle with emotional scars, addictions, and a litany of pathological neurosis. As in all three of Mohr’s books, what elevates Damascus […]

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Deconstructing the Genius: ‘Picasso: Masterpieces …’ at the de Young Museum

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The Picasso of the contemporary American imagination and the Picasso of flesh and blood deserve adequate distinction. Because of his universally accepted greatness, it’s easily taken for granted that the same painter could produce both the glowing anthem-portraits of his Rose Period and jagged political commentary such as “Guernica.” It doesn’t help that Picasso’s reputation is so gargantuan as to be nearly self-propagating—nor that his name has not only earned a requisite mention in every elementary- and high school visual arts class, but become a descriptor, synonymous with excessive artistic ability. All of this results in a numbed appreciation for […]

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Shig Murao: The Enigmatic Soul of City Lights and the San Francisco Beat Scene

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On October 3, 1957, a judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was not obscene. It was a decision that would pave the way for publication of works from Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and others. A key  figure from the Howl trial was Shig Murao. His life and legacy has been documented in a website that launches today, www.shigmurao.org. This essay is adapted from a much longer biography with multiple supporting documents published on the website created by Richard Reynolds, a longtime friend of Murao’s. Shig Murao was the clerk who on June 3, 1957, was […]

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A Family Besieged: Justin Torres’ ‘We the Animals’

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Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages), carries all the balm and hazard of strong waves at high tide. Told through the eyes of the youngest of three brothers, the novel evokes the experience of youth and the struggles of a poor family from Brooklyn living in upstate New York. Through his enveloping and fast-paced prose, Torres bestows his story with a rare generosity and honesty, portraying the family’s jagged love – with all its cruelty, beauty, tenderness, and loyalty – and chronicling the events leading to the family’s calamitous fragmentation. Torres, who lives in […]

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Lost Coast

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Will Boast was born in England, grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin, and now lives in San Francisco, where he also works as musician. A former Stegner Fellow, his fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices 2009, Narrative, and other publications. His story collection, Power Ballads (University of Iowa Press), comes out in October and has drawn praise from Yiyun Li, Tom Franklin, and Ann Beattie.

“Lost Coast” is a sneaky story about revenge set in perhaps the most unlikely of places: the indie music scene. Boast effectively evokes the noirish hues of San Francisco and masterfully conveys the craftsmanship of the music at the heart of the piece. The following is an excerpt from the story, which appears in ZYZZYVA’s Fall issue.

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Approaching the Omega Point: Aron Meynell and Erik Otto at White Walls

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The work of San Francisco artist Aron Meynell doesn’t immediately command attention. His tones are muted—“somber” is how White Walls gallery owner and curator Justin Giarla put it—and his subject matter that which might be swiftly passed over in the work of a less-skilled artist: trees, animals, the occasional person. But to round down the quietude of these pieces to silence would be an underestimation of their power. Instead of choosing to shock or scream, the carefully constructed landscape studies comprising Meynell’s first solo show hum along almost inaudibly, their worlds not quite plausible but not easily rejected as fantasy. […]

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Frida & Diego, or Among Musicians Only

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Willy Lizárraga was born and raised in Peru and arrived in San Francisco as a teen. A teacher at Berkeley City College, Lizárraga is also a novelist. His novel in Spanish, Mientras Elena en su lecho, won the 1995 Letras de Oro Literary Prize, University of Miami. Frida & Diego, Or Among Musicians Only appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of ZYZZYVA. (You can get a copy here.) The following excerpt gives a strong sense of Lizárraga’s vibrant English prose, as well as his powerful depiction of place. Here, San Francisco’s Mission District is a “cemetery” after midnight. “Why aren’t they flooding the streets of this supposedly world-class city, me cago en Dios?” a character asks. “Why isn’t everybody enjoying the night como gente civilizada, hostias?” (If you read Spanish, the story is also joyfully profane.)

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Day and Night

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Twenty-five years or so ago, when I first started coming to Los Angeles on a regular basis, I used to stay with a friend who had a satellite’s eye view poster of the city in his breakfast room. It was then — and remains, I think — a vivid metaphor. Not for the sprawl of Southern California, although you can certainly see it there, but rather for the odd tension of the built environment, which can only push the natural landscape so far. If sprawl is an expression of our attempts to control our surroundings, the satellite photo reveals just […]

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