Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an event that continues to amaze. I’ve been to eight of the nine held. There was only one stage at the first one and about ten thousand people. It was a nice event, but how long would it last? How many people would show up for a Bluegrass Festival? Even for free? It has exploded, and it’s hard to believe it is getting bigger. I can’t remember what year it became “Hardly Strictly” Bluegrass. That opened the door to having acts that attracted a wider range of fans, especially younger fans. Music fans across the country plan their vacations around going to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It’s usually held on the first weekend in October.

And it’s free! It’s all bankrolled by Warren Hellman. He says it’s a gift to himself. The crowds are huge. Locals complain about the effects on traffic, parking and the Park itself, but it’s become a huge event for the City. The San Francisco Examiner estimated that 800,000 people attended this year. It also reported that there were two arrests for public drunkenness. Some in the crowd may be oblivious to what’s going on onstage, but it is amazing that there aren’t a lot more of the problems that come with a crowd of that size.

This August had been the Fortieth Anniversary of Woodstock. The media had been going nuts with stories about the counter culture milestone. Network news had a Woodstock story every day for a week. NBC tracked down the couple pictured hugging on the cover of the Woodstock album. There was the usual debate on the effects of the counterculture. Hardly Strictly is like Woodstock every year, without the camping out.

The festival goes Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Friday is turning out to be the best day to go. There’s only one stage going, The Banjo Stage. It opens with a morning show for school kids. MC Hammer makes an appearance. When people see him on the schedule they have to wonder, MC Hammer at a Bluegrass Festival? Well, it is “Hardly Strictly” Bluegrass.

I arrive early. Volunteers at an Information Booth are greeting people by yelling: “Happy Hardly Strictly Bluegrass!” like it’s Christmas. It is Christmas for Bluegrass and music fans.

Warren Hellman comes onstage to open the festivities. There’s a big ovation for the man who pays for everything. “You guys are going to make me cry,” he says. He introduces Poor Man’s Whiskey. They had to be announced as “PMW” at the kid’s show. They didn’t want to use the W word.

We had just seen Poor Man’s Whiskey at Cafe DuNord. Kathy had won tickets from radio station KPIG. They’re one of the bands that brings in a younger crowd. They do a funny song about their parent’s adventures in the Sixties, “Easy Come, Easy Go.” It’s an odd song about life in the Haight forty years ago. The keyboard player had a great long psychedelic solo. “Shanghai” is “A song that has everything ... Whiskey, women and the Barbary Coast.”

They have a CD “Dark Side of the Moonshine” that is a Bluegrass version of “Dark Side of the Moon.” They do each song from the album note for note with banjoes and fiddles. It’s an amusing recording. Two of the singers met at Hardly Strictly last year. They just got married! “This means they can now discuss issues like the one that will be covered in the next song,” “PMS.” Two female singers come onstage to help with this one. They close with “Good Friends of Mine.”

The MC tells us that he was just in Jacksonville, Kentucky. He noticed that everyone there seemed to be a bit depressed. Everyone was “a bit hang dog.” What was going on? “All the Bluegrass has gone to San Francisco.”

The music they play on the PA during the break sounds familiar. It takes me a while to figure out it’s a Bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of “Hangman!” Then there’s a version of “Whole Lotta Love” with banjoes and mandolins wailing.

There are many Rage Against the Machine and “The Nightwatchman” tee shirts in the crowd. Tom Morello has a lot of fans here to see him. He is very active politically. He’s alone onstage with an acoustic guitar and plays rebel songs for the Twenty-First Century. “One Man Revolution.” “Guerrilla Radio.” “The Fabled City” (“San Francisco IS the fabled City!”) His whole set is solo. He even does one song while playing only a hand held drum. “This is a song I did for the soundtrack to the movie ‘Sicko.’” “Alone Without You”

Steve Earle and Allison Maurer join him onstage for Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” “The REAL national anthem!” Morello is sure using the F word a lot. He’s trying to whip the crowd up for some audience participation. “OK, everybody stand up.” (They do.) He wants them to do some call and response. (They don’t.)

We meet my sister Joan and two of her friends. She’s excited to see John Prine. We spread a blanket pretty far in the back, but she goes up for a closer look. Some fans have come today just to see John Prine. He started playing in Chicago and was a member of “the second wave” of Folk music.

“Picture Show” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” “Whistle While You Fish”

He does a great version of “Angel of Montgomery.” The crowd seems to settle down for a while and are actually listening. It’s a great song and one of the many highlights of the weekend. “Bear Creek Blues.” “Crooked Piece of Tape” “I Didn’t Hurt Nobody” “Souvenirs”

Prine did demand some respect from the crowd, but as the set goes on the crowd around us starts chattering, maybe because we’re so far from the stage. OK, so it is a bar. There were certainly more people here than when Prine started playing at The Earl of Old Town.

The headliner tonight is Lyle Lovett and His Big Band. It’s an example of how great this festival is. I see acts I wouldn’t go out and pay to see. Lyle and the band look very show business. They are all in suits and ties. The band does an instrumental warm up piece “Jump My Chicken.” “Here I Am” “I Will Rise Up” They do a mournful song from the movie Dead Man Walking, “Promises.” Prine comes back and joins in “Loretta.” “She Don’t Talk To Me Anymore”

Friday’s crowd is not as massive as it will be later this weekend, when there will be five more stages. The crowd is pretty laid back. It’s certainly not a Heavy Mental crowd. There are still some characters. If you’re living in the park anyway, you might as well check out the show. I’ll admit I do have a tendency to dwell on the negative members of a crowd. Maybe you just notice the bad kids more.

There was a group of about thirty near a path in the back. Many had the homeless sun tan. Again, most of the crowd is well behaved, but these guys looked pretty crazy. They looked like they lived in the bushes. They weren’t really doing anything, but they did make a point of blocking the path when an attractive woman walked by. Maybe I just noticed people like this more on Friday. They would get lost in the masses during the next two days. You’ve got to expect to see some crazy hillbillies at a Bluegrass festival!

I spotted a lone San Francisco police officer. He was not with a partner. Kind of unusual. One of the homeless group yelled over to him, “Hey, Officer Fat Ass!” Did this guy just want to get arrested? The lone cop ignored him.

There was a lot of smoking despite announcements from onstage. A couple of years ago all smoking was banned in San Francisco parks. It’s one of those laws that is seldom enforced. People are using the safety of being in the crowd to light up.

Some young ladies were living their Hippie fantasy. They wore peasant dresses and granny glasses. People came over and asked, but it was obvious they certainly didn’t mind having their pictures taken.

The crowd’s attention seemed to wander during some of the quieter, slower songs. Inevitable, I guess. Even this seems better than past years. There’s not as much rampant cell phone use. Maybe it’s because they’re texting. I don’t want to be a total grouch about it. Most of this music did start in bars, but sometimes you have to wonder, why did they even bother coming out here? Oh yeah, they have to make the scene.

Lovett closes with some Honky Tonk Texas style Rock that gets the crowd going.


Friday there is one stage going. Today there are six. The dynamic changes. People show up early to get spots. People set up tarps and wander from stage to stage. It looks like people are not being as obnoxious about taking up space as in previous years. Maybe it’s one of those things I accept about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I like to wander, but it is good to have a spot for a while.

I was honored to ride and arrive with two members of The Albany All-Stars, long time colleague John Stuber and The All-Stars’ fiddle player, David Rice. (Check out “The Albany All-Stars” on Youtube. Not to be confused with the Roller Derby team.) Mandolin player Joe Risconi didn’t make it today.

I’ll admit that I’m more of a Heavy Metal guy, so many of these song titles are approximations. Corrections are welcomed. Half the fun of doing this is learning more about the acts I see at Hardly Strictly.

I had taken a look at the schedule on the Hardly Strictly web site. One thing about this event is that there are sometimes hard choices to make. I decided to check out the “rare appearance” by Marshall Crensaw at the Rooster Stage. He had been well hyped in the press that week. He’s been called “the critic’s favorite.”

Sleepy John Estes from radio station KPIG is the MC on the Rooster Stage. It’s 11:00 a.m. when Crenshaw says, “I’m not used to being excited this early in the morning.”

“Fantastic Planet of Love” “Stormy River” “Hurry On” “I’m Never Coming Down”

“Live and Learn. (It’s Your Turn)” “Someday Someway” “Someone Told Me” He does a Richard Thompson cover: “Valerie.”

“Here’s one I wrote with Richard Julian,” “Stormy River.” “Hurry On (Just Passing Through?)” One from the oldies bag: “There She Goes Again.” “There she goes with another guy again. Hope she finds what she’s looking for.”

“Somebody has to do a Buddy Holly song,” Crenshaw tells the crowd. “Crying” (Can’t get you off of my mind.) “I’m Never Coming Down”

A guy is carrying a life sized cardboard cutout of Obama. It would be quite a statement, carrying that thing around all day.

Buddy Miller is the first act on the new Towers of Gold Stage. The new stage would honor Warren Hellman’s grandfather, the first mogul in the family. I’d seen Buddy Miller play at past Hardly Strictly Festivals and didn’t want to miss him. So, I crossed John F. Kennedy drive, which was a maze of cyclone fences and got there in time for the first song, “Daisy.”

“Too Far Gone” I hadn’t noticed it before, but his voice sounds like Alvin Lee! It’s time for the first big surprise cameo of the festival. Emmy Lou Harris joins him for “Gasoline and Matches.” She’s the darling of Hardly Strictly and the crowd has a loud warm reaction to her appearance onstage. They do “I’ve Got a Wide River to Cross.”

I’m tempted to go back to The Star Stage, but decide to hear one more. The crowd roars when special guest Robert Plant is announced. He does a couple of Zeppelinesque yodels to warm up. The song sounds a bit familiar. It’s “Movin’ On” the old Hank Thompson song once covered by the Rolling Stones. Buddy Miller, Plant and the band rock out!

Some in the crowd can’t believe it’s Plant. I can hear them asking, “Is it really him?” Plant did appear at last year’s Friday night show.

“Sea of Heartbreak” “Leave My Woman Alone” Kathy says it’s “Whatcha Going to Do, Leroy” by Lefty Frizell.

I have to admit if I’d missed this one, I would have been mad. The two acts I’d seen already were a great start to the day. It was a great opening for The Towers of Gold Stage.

I go back to the Star Stage for “Roger Knox & The Pine Valley Cosmonauts (Presenting the Aboriginal Country & Western Songbook.)” It’s another example of the width and breadth of the festival. Australian Country and Western! The band is carrying on without Roger Knox who was denied a visa. Immigration officials had decided that he’s some kind of threat to America. Jon Langford does appear with The Cosmonauts. He makes a reference to another wild event in San Francisco, The Folsom Street Fair. “You should see the S and M Fair they have here!”

“I Love a Millionaire” “Ticket to Nowhere” “Taking Me Back” “Seminoles”

There are a couple of members of The Sadies with them. “The Sadies are the best group ever!” someone says from onstage. I’m really winging it with some of these song titles: “Looking Good for Radio” “Get Rhythm (When You Get Blues)” “He Needs a Little Love at Closing Time”

Kathy had gone to the Rooster Stage to see Jorma Kaukonen, but I decided to stay put. I already wanted to give the legs a rest. Kathy reports that he played “Come Back Baby” and “San Francisco Bay Blues.”

We stay at the Star Stage for Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women. They had their debut at last year’s Hardly Strictly. It was an experiment last year, and the band worked well enough to record and tour all year. They start with a jaunty Cajun “Marie Marie.” Laurie Lewis has come over from the Banjo Stage to play fiddle. “She’s the Hardly Strictly cover girl!” Dave Allan tells us. “Weight of the World is on Me.”

Dave Alvin says the band has recently lost a member. Amy Farris, their fiddle player, had passed away a couple of days ago after a long illness. It’s a sad moment, but the band plays on. “Simple Way” “Has She Got a Friend?”

“The next song is a song of sorrow and triumph.” “Bury Me In Potter’s Field.”

Krissy McWilson joins for “Abilene.” Alvin sure does look slick, even in a cowboy hat and jeans. He’s a music business veteran. Alvin tells us that anyone thinking of getting in the music business should be warned: “Being a musician can be harmful to your health.”

“Here’s a song that is one hundred per cent true.” It’s about the old music club The Ash Grove in Los Angeles. “Everybody played there.” Alvin reminisces on hanging out at the club with “The Boss of the Blues” Big Joe Turner. The Ash Grove eventually burned down. Allan returns there every time he plays this song.

They close with a strange one. The old Doris Day hit, “Que Sera, Sera.” “Whatever will be, will be.” I remember hearing it on the radio when I was a kid. They do country rock it up.

We go back to The Towers of Gold Stage to catch some of The Old 97s. This year Stuber was looking for acts he hadn’t seen before. Usually we camp at the Rooster stage, but it was intolerable last year. People kept crowding into a limited space. Most of the other stages have room to spread out, but The Rooster Stage is in Marx Meadow. It’s not a big area and people can’t spread out. Even in Golden Gate Park it can be a bit claustrophobic.

We hear The Old 97s do “A Guilty Thing” and then an old Bob Wills song, “The Bedroom Walls.” “I’m Going Over the Cliff” “I need To Know Where I Stand” “Sweet Blue Eyed Darling.” A big crowd has gathered to see this band. Most seem to be younger folks. Exene Cervenka, the singer from the L.A. punk rock pioneers X joins for “Four Leafed Clover.”

We live near Golden Gate Park. Musicians on several of the stages comment on how great it is to perform in a place that is so beautiful. Each stage has a rustic looking screen backdrop, but it is transparent enough to see the trees of Golden Gate Park through it. It’s clear and sunny, a great weather day in the Park.

We go back to The Star Stage for Nick Lowe. At least they are the two stages “next” to each other. It is a little hike each time we go to another stage. Lowe plays most of the set solo and acoustic.

“Simple Way” “Has She Got a Friend” “Heart of the City” “Same Old Man” “I Live On a Battlefield” “Cruel To Be Kind” “Here’s a song I wrote with Elvis Costello,” “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding”

Elvis Costello had been a presence at this festival in past years. He usually does his own set and guests during the weekend at other stages. He’s not here this year.

We went back to the Banjo Stage. There’s an unbelievable amount of people there. We went around to the side and even found a picnic table where we sat for a while. It was a bit of a luxury after hiking through the crowds. We couldn’t see the stage much, but we were content to hang out there for Gillian Welch. They did a great version of “Novocaine.” Emmy Lou Harris joined for “It’s Too Easy.” Again the crowd warmly greets her. “I’ll Fly Away” (Old Glory)”

Members of The Old Crow Medicine Show join her onstage for “The Dream Locomotive.” They do a version of The Band’s song, “The Weight.” The crowd really enjoys this one and joins in on the singing.

It had been a great weather day, but the wind started picking up, as it will do in Golden Gate Park in the late afternoon. We could see mini-dust devils whirling around. A small tower that held The Banjo Stage’s schedule on a tall sign almost blew over. This year some of the last acts wouldn’t end until eight o’clock! We started heading back to the car, which was parked past the buffalo paddock. We would stop at stages on the way.

Usually seeing the next act alone would be worth going out, The Flatlanders. “Featuring Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.” “Hello Stranger” “Baby Do You Love Me Still.” It’s a great group of musicians but things are getting more uncomfortable in the wind and it’s getting cold. We reluctantly move on to The Towers of Gold Stage, which is on the way to the car.

We get to that stage and it’s rocking with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. It’s another reason for going to Hardly Strictly. I never heard of these guys. It’s real old Rock and Roll. Marty Stuart looks like a crazy show business cowboy. (Reminds me of the old joke: They do both kinds of music, Country AND Western!) Their music has a Fifties flavor. The guitars almost sound like Surf music at times. “I Met My Baby at the Choctaw Fair.”

Marty Stuart has “big” slicked back hair. These guys are the real deal. They sound like they could play the toughest Honky Tonk in the old days. There are crosses on Marty Stuart’s jacket. Looks like he’s been Born Again, but he still looks like one crazy dude. They do “Branded” another rocker. It’s great Rock and Roll as we make it back to the car at about seven o’clock.

Sunday. We get to the Towers of Gold stage at about 11:15 for Marley’s Ghost with special guest Cowboy Jack Clement. Clement was playing at the Sun recording session when they decided to try something a little bit different, Rock and Roll. There’s some hype in the local press about Clement’s appearance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It is a piece of music history onstage. He does look ancient.

“The Story of Job” “The Farmer’s Song” “My Love Will Not Change” “Candy Store” (“She worked in a candy store.”) “What’s that picture in your wallet?” Oh, it’s “Just a Girl I Used to Know”

After the set a young guy comes up to us and wants to talk. We should stay for Dr. Dog. “He’s like if McCartney was still really doing his thing!” Great. I’m glad there’s something for the kids, but we’re going to see Booker T. We walked by Elvis In Dearland at The Star Stage. We didn’t linger. We wanted to get to The Arrow Stage for Booker T & The Drive-By Truckers. I’d seen The Drive-By Truckers tear it up at last year’s festival. They make a great combination with Booker T. They have been appearing and recording together. It was full circle for me. Booker T & The MGs played with Albert King at the first big free show I saw in Grant Park in Chicago.

They play at The Arrow Stage which is at one end of Speedway Meadows. The crowd stretches for a long way towards the Polo Fields. They play old Booker T & The MGs classics and some new songs. It’s great to see Booker T onstage. He’s the master of the Hammond B3 organ. Is there any more recognizable iconic riff than the one from “Green Onions?” Where it all started.

“Time Is Tight” The encore is “Dock of the Bay” and it fits perfectly into a Bay Area appearance. There’s some Sixties nostalgia, with The Drive By Truckers providing a link to today’s music.

We went back to The Star Stage to see The Chieftains. How often do you get to see a historic, legendary act like this? We hear an Irish reel as we get there. There are Irish step dancers onstage in traditional costume. Then they play “Wabash Cannonball.” There is a teaser riff of “Satisfaction.” Some of the Rolling Stones have recorded with The Chieftains. They play “The Rocky Road to Dublin.”

“March Across the Rio Grande” The first of several guests joins: Los Centaurus, a Spanish Folk dance act. Rosa Flores sings with Los Centaurus. Tim O’Brien comes onstage for “Sweet Georgia Brown.” They close with some rocking Irish music. The crowd loves them and The Craic is grand!

We’ve been avoiding the crowded Rooster Stage. Stuber’s goal this year is to see someone new, or at least someone he hasn’t seen before. So, we check out Rodney Crowell at The Arrow Stage. Crowell tells the crowd about his brother who was gay and was turning tricks down in L.A. Eventually he was a victim of AIDS. Crowell plays “Rent Boy.” It’s certainly a sad song, and I have to give Crowell credit for singing about something that must have been very painful to him. Rosa Flores guests and they do “Like a River.”

It’s day three and we’re starting to drag a bit, but we pour it on for the end. It is only once a year. We’ll do one giant lap and catch acts as we go to the Porch Stage, the eastern entrance to the festival. Then we’ll circle back to the car. We decide to see some of “the old guys.”

Earl Scruggs and a great band are playing “Easy Chair” when we get there. They’re at the Banjo Stage. We go towards the back of the stage. At this point we don’t care how close we get. We can’t get into the backstage area, but there’s an interesting view from a small hill behind the stage. The crowd is huge. We get a bit of the musicians view and the crowd looks Biblical in dimension.

What Earl Scruggs appearance would be complete without “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies? That song has to be the first Bluegrass many Baby Boomers heard.

Warren Hellman comes onstage and joins Scruggs and Co. for “When the Cold Winds Blow.” Hellman has his arm in a sling, but he plays banjo anyway. He does make cameo appearances all over the festival. He’s an able musician with a love for the music, and he is paying all the bills. They play an odd version of “Lady Madonna.”

“Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” “All Night Long”

The band really lets loose for the finale: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

We headed to The Porch Stage. It has acts that are not as well known. The crowd and atmosphere is very different here. It’s a small stage with a small crowd and a nice break from the huge crowds that are migrating from stage to stage. Any stage at this festival would be a great event by itself. I tell myself that someday I’m just going to sit at The Porch Stage for the whole thing.

The Brothers Comatose are onstage. They’re a young band. “Way to Reno.” “Keith Richards called me last night and asked us to do this song,” the singer tells us. “Dead Flowers.” They do a good and amusing cover. A red tailed hawk swoops overhead. They play a song called “Time To Go.” It’s bad timing on their part. The song sounds like something they use to finish a set, but then they play two more songs: “Turn It Around” and “Y’All Come.” Maybe they were asked to fill some time.

We leave The Porch Stage and start the long trek back to the car. We’ll stop at stages on the way out again. We’ve learned you can look at the schedule and try to plan, but after a while it’s a crap shoot. You just can’t see and hear as much as you want to at this festival. It’s almost a matter of chance what you’ll see.

Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys are jamming at the Banjo Stage. They’re playing “O Death” as we walk up. We stand behind the stage again and get the musicians’ view. The crowd really is impressive. It seems to go on forever towards the next stage.

People near the side of the stage are content to just sit on their blankets. There is a lot of smoking going on. We’re able to walk up and get a closer side view of the stage. They play “Katy Daly” an old Irish song I remember we sang as kids, “Come down the mountain Katy Daly, Come down the mountain Katy do.” It’s another Bluegrass Irish connection.

“Three Time Loser” “Nature’s Call” “Searching for His Grave” The last songs are long picking classics. Each member of the band gets a chance to solo in the spotlight. Each tries to upstage the others with their picking prowess. It’s a rousing finale!

John F. Kennedy Drive divides the festival in two. It has cyclone fences up so musicians and VIPS can scoot from stage to stage. People are now spreading blankets across the street from the part of the Park with the stages. They’ll take the spot even though they won’t be able to see anything. At least they will hear.

We’re headed to The Arrow Stage to see Todd Snider. He’s another guy I learned about at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. He does long hilarious monologues between songs. He tells us about his short high school football career. “Yeah, I played football.” There are laughs. It’s hard to imagine this slacker Hippie dude in a football uniform. “I was on the team!” he declares. He describes American high school football. You get out of school and change into uncomfortable clothes and then pound on each other. Coaches yell and berate you.

Snider began to notice that some students were slipping away into an area behind the football field. “What’s that?” “It’s The Smoke Pit,” another student informed him. “That’s where The Burnouts hang out and smoke cigarettes. He becomes more interested in the Burnouts than football. One day, one of The Burnouts offers him a hit of LSD at lunch time. Snider didn’t really know what he was getting himself into. He didn’t go to practice that day or ever again. He sings “One Shot At Having It All.”

“This is another song about psychedelic drugs and athleticism.” It’s a funny song, “America’s Favorite Pastime.” Dock Ellis was a major league pitcher who arrived at the ballpark one day not expecting to pitch, so he decided to take a hit of acid. (It was the Seventies.) For some reason he was moved up in the rotation and wound up pitching that day. He did walk about nine batters, but there wasn’t a single hit against him. The crowd loves it and exults when Snider sings the last line, “The day Dock Ellis pitched a no hitter while he was on LSD!” The last song is “White Conservative Christian” in which Snider tells us that he’s “A pot smoking, porn watching lazy ass Hippie.”

I see San Francisco’s demonstrating eccentric Frank Chu marching with his picket sign. He appears at just about every big gathering of people in the Bay Area. The top word on the sign is “Tedford.” It’s an odd, puzzling mention of the University of California’s football coach.

Marianne Faithful was appearing at The Towers of Gold Stage. Her appearance is another stretch for a Bluegrass Festival but it is Hardly Strictly. We were curious, but by the time we got to that stage she was long gone.

Kathy pointed out that The Knitters would be playing at The Rooster Stage. We were a bit cautious. The stage in Marx Meadows had been a crowded mess last year. We figured we’d hang in the back. I did want to see Exene, and it really wasn’t that crowded. Maybe it was because many people crowded to the front leaving gaps in the crowd.

Exene Cervenka is the singer from the Punk Rock band X. She and John Doe drifted into “Roots” and Americana music in the Eighties. Dave Alvin joins them. People are just sitting on blankets in the back. The front half of the audience was rocking though. It was more of a Punk Rock and Roll show with Exene, John Doe and Dave Alvin!

“Something to Brag About (With You)” “Poor Old Heartsick Me” They do a Dave Allan song: “Dry River” with the line: “Someday It’s Gonna to Rain” “Poor Little Critter on the Road”

There is some explanation of the next song. “The day after Obama’s inauguration I started thinking, what’s really different? It’s supposed to be a new world. Has anything really changed?” “This is supposed to be The New World”?

Exene: “Let’s do a Porter Waggoner song!” “Way To Go” “In This House I Call Home.” “Wear Some Lillies In My Hair” The band rocks: Fort Lauderdale has burnt to hell! Marx Meadow becomes a punk rock club for a short time.

That was about it for us. It was getting windy. The weather wasn’t as bad as it had been Saturday evening, but it was time to go. We knew that Malo, and then Little Feat would be playing at The Arrow Stage later. It was hard to pass up, but we kept going to the car. Eight hours was enough. People were streaming past us, headed in the opposite direction for the traditional Hardly Strictly finale, Emmy Lou Harris. We stopped for a break at a park bench near the Star Stage. We could hear Neko Case through the trees, but we couldn’t see anything. The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was over for us for 2009.

We had heard great music, but we had missed some great acts. I had wanted to see The Austin Lounge Lizards, always a fun act, do “Too Big To Fail.” Boz Scaggs had gathered an all star band including Austin De Lone and James Cotton, but they were playing at the dread Rooster Stage while we were at Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women. It’s just an example of some of the choices that have to be made. At about the same time former Saturday Night Live comedian Steve Martin had drawn a huge crowd to The Banjo Stage. We missed Hazel Dickens, who we had seen almost every year. Clips started to appear on YouTube that night.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

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Ron Thompson

Kathy won two tickets from radio station KPIG to see Ron Thompson at The Union Room. It’s a bar above Biscuits and Blues. We had seen him twice this year on our free festival tour. He was a presence at “The California Blues Festival” at the Golden Gate Park Bandshell on Memorial Day. We saw him again at The Redwood City Blues Festival. We’ve seen him many times over the years in North Beach. He’s played the San Francisco Blues Festival. Winning the tickets was a good excuse to go out.

It was the Tuesday night after Labor Day. It would probably be a slow night. Biscuits and Blues has a video screen in a window on the street. You can see what’s going on onstage. Michael Burks would be playing in the big room downstairs. We went upstairs and the bartender and his assistant seemed surprised to see anyone tonight. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?” The free tickets seemed to be enough of a reason for them. They were charging ten dollars at the door.

A silent replay of last year’s Super Bowl played on a couple of TVs. Ron Thompson came in. He’s short and wore a white pork pie style hat. He had a tiny goattee, a “whiff.” The bartender looked half Thompson’s age. They talked about cars.

It’s a great little room for music. The last time we were upstairs it had been a thriving Irish restaurant. That was over ten years ago. The Internet boom was still going on. We’re a long way from that. Tonight we were the only two sitting at the bar. On one side of the room there were couches with cushioned seats and tables for nightclub lounging. Two other couples sat at table. I assumed they were tourists. I had to wonder how they found the place. The total attendance all night, counting us, was ten.

Thompson started playing on a portable Roland keyboard. He started with an old doo-wop song, “Ain’t Got No Home.” It had been a novelty song with the deep croaking voice of Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Ain’t got no job, no home, no woman, etc. Doesn’t seem to matter with Thompson rocking the piano. The song was a good match for his voice.

Then he did Ray Charles “I Believe.” Thompson would play everything solo tonight. He didn’t have a great voice, but he was pouring his heart and soul into it. He’d take a very short break between songs. He kept things moving. He threw out a lot of sound for one guy. Crunching Boogie. He played a few very old songs on mandolin. It wasn’t a night for scribbling notes, so I don’t have all the titles of this one man cavalcade of Blues and American Roots music.

He played an acoustic, but it was wired. He just kept blasting. He played a few more old tunes and then switched to electric guitar and belted out some old Boogie numbers. He did “Little Red Rooster” and other old Blues songs. He really lets it rip during “The Devil Has 99 Women.” “But there’s room for one more.”

It was time for a break and he joined us at the bar. He’s a little guy, a bit hyper and friendly. We started talking. We shook hands. His hand was calloused and rough. He’s played a lot of guitar. He was curious about why we were there. We told him we’d seen him many times. Where? North Beach! We talked a little about the North Beach Blues scene of the past. There were three bars on Grant Street cooking just about every night. Some nights sets would alternate between The Grant and Green and The Lost and Found. The Saloon was just up the street.

We talk about seeing him at Redwood City. He seems surprised. We explain that we try to go to as many free music events as we can. “Marin City was good,” he tells us. They have a Labor Day “Blues, Jazz and Soul Party.”

There was some non-musical chit chat. Where did we live? How long have we been in the Bay Area? Kathy has lived in San Francisco since ’73 and I arrived in ’76, so our credentials were impeccable.

Thompson talked about living in the Ingleside in the early Seventies. “It was rough.” He was one of the few white people living there then, “And I didn’t have a car!”

The only white guy around, “And I used MUNI!”

Kathy played interviewer, “Where was his first job?” He hesitated and had to think about it. “Fremont! That was pretty bad. The Fremont was bad.” “The old Black guy hired me because I knew the songs.” I realized later “the old Black guy” might have been John Lee Hooker. Thompson was born in Newark. He’s an East Bay native.

The other two couples had left, so we were the only ones there. It really was a private show. He wondered if he should go back onstage. We told him we didn’t mind just talking at the bar. He didn’t have to start again for us. It’s rare that we get to talk to the musicians we’ve gone to see. It can be disappointing. Thompson was personable and seemed to enjoy talking to us. He had another Grand Marnier. I knew he had played with a lot of the greats. He must have some good stories.

Kathy asks him what his first instrument was. I’m surprised he has to think. Piano! Somehow the subject of unions comes up, maybe because we had been talking about North Beach. He talked about two guys he knew that worked for the union. He said you didn’t see them until it was time to collect union dues or some other fee. Local 510. “They probably pocketed the money.”

“I played with a lot of people. I played with Mick Fleetwood.” He waited for signs of surprise. “Believe it or not, they were a Blues Band at first.” I had seen Fleetwood Mac back in the day and always thought they were a great Blues and Rock band before they were ruined by commercial success.

He met and played with Peter Green. “He was crazy! He’s still crazy!” I wanted to draw him out on that one. What “crazy” things did Peter Green do? He moved on without further comment. I’m sure he was aware of the cult of Peter Green. Any tales would probably be repeated.

So, he must have played in Chicago? He did, but he can’t remember where. What part of town? Can’t remember. It’s understandable with all the gigs this guy has done over the years. He did remember Wise Fools, “where everybody went to drink.” Wise Fools did have a lot of great Blues acts.

He talked again about living in the Ingleside. He reminds us, “Without a car.” Mark Naftalin picked him up from the airport and when Thompson told him their destination, Naftalin couldn’t believe it. “You can’t live there.” Thompson claimed a visitor from Chicago told him the Ingleside was worse than the South Side. (I had to express my doubts on that one.)

He played with John Lee Hooker for years and said he met a lot of the old Bluesman through him. He met Lightnin’ Hopkins through John Lee Hooker. (He later did two Hopkins songs.) “I met Eddie Taylor through him!” He must have told these stories hundreds of times, but obviously liked telling them again. He subtly mentioned playing with Jimmy Reed. I jumped on it, “You played with Jimmy Reed?!” Yeah, he sure did. He mentions playing with Homesick James.

How did he like being a solo act? He loved it. There were definite advantages. He liked playing in a band, but he could play whatever he wanted when he was on his own. He also didn’t have to worry about other people showing up. “If you make a mistake, then it’s Jazz!”

A couple more tourist couples came in and it was time for Thompson to go back to work. “Anything you want to hear?” Kathy suggested “old stuff.” Probably what he was going to play anyway. He pumped out more Blues history. Some great slide guitar. “Love in Vain.”

I noticed a Black man standing near the back of the bar. It wasn’t too hard to notice anyone entering or leaving tonight. It was Bobby “Spider” Webb. Thompson said hello from onstage. Would he join in? No, just a look in tonight. Thompson plays a couple more songs and takes another break.

A place he did remember was Kiko’s on Broadway in North Beach. It still had Rock and Blues acts there when I first came to San Francisco. Thompson played there and somebody told him the owner, Kiko, was in “The Flower Drum Song.” This was a setup. Thompson asked her about being in the movie. Apparently she was not in the movie. The guy who had clued Thompson in knew she hated hearing the story. She wanted to kick Thompson out of the club. It took her a while to calm down and allow Thompson to stay.

He must have played Merced, Kathy’s home town. Highway 99 had many Blues Clubs on it’s route through the Valley. “Of course.” He thought for a minute. “The Blue Notes! They were a great band!”

Kathy mentions seeing Dan Hicks at Yoshi’s. Thompson is a bit surprised he played there. We discuss Dan Hicks unique sense of humor.

Thompson says he hasn’t travelled across the country much this year because he’s recording. He’s working on what he thinks will be a great song. Later he does “Ocean of Tears” Which I think is the song he mentioned.

He tells us that lately he’s been driving to San Jose for a gig on Friday night then drives to Fresno for a Saturday night gig. Then he drives to Point Arena. (On the coast, far North of San Francisco.) He may not be traveling across the country, but he’s sure covering some miles every week.

He goes back for the last set. He does some more standards: “I’ve Been Loving You.” He did two Elmore James songs in a row. “It Hurts Me Too.” More great slide. He does a couple of Lightnin’ Hopkins songs including “Mojo Man.

The free tickets saved us each the $10 cover. They made up for it at the bar. It wasn’t the greatest of deals, but the SF Blues Festival is cancelled this year, so we hope to make it up on nights like this. Back in the North Beach days I’d have a night like this about once a week. It's a rarity now. Have to wonder how “The Union Room” can survive.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jerry Day

Jerry Day is an annual celebration of Jerry Garcia’s birthday. His real birthday is August 1, but the celebration is held on the next day, Sunday. It’s a free event held in McClaren Park. McClaren is a big park with hills and wooded gullies and some sweeping views. You can see the Bay at certain points. Compared to Golden Gate Park, McClaren is remote. Usually it’s only the locals that know and use McClaren Park. I’d played softball at nearby Crocker Amazon, and have gone to some of my nephew Daniel’s soccer games at the new fields there, but I’ve never seen the amphitheater. It was named The Jerry Garcia Memorial Amphitheater a few years ago. It’s near The Excelsior, the neighborhood Garcia grew up in. It was a blue collar, working class part of San Francisco.

We took the right exit from 101 South and soon spotted some cars, vans and small trucks parked by the roadway. Bumper stickers for ecology and peace told us this must be the place. We heard an earnest young woman warning others that, “No glass is allowed.” We took heed of her righteous warning. We found out they were serious about the no glass thing. There weren’t many people heading down the road, but there wasn’t much doubt about which way to go. Just follow the tie-dye.

It was a steep walk to the Amphitheater. Then we went through a wooded area with pines. We missed the first act, Loco Bloco. They are a youth development organization trying to get youth involved in music and theater and give them an alternative to the gang life. The Hendrix tune “The Wind Cries Mary” drifted up. The terrain leveled off. A young security guard was on the trail to the Amphitheater. She searched our bag. I’m glad we didn’t gamble. It’s a steep walk back to the car. There was another bag check before entering the amphitheater area. They really are serious about keeping glass out.

The stage is concrete with some risers in the back. It’s in the middle of a natural bowl. There is some seating on concrete bleachers, but they’ve been all been taken. There were tie-dye backdrops onstage and a painting of the whimsical Jerry. Two official looking San Francisco Street signs were onstage: Excelsior, and Jerry Garcia.

Check Engine Light were playing as we arrived. The Jerry Day web site says they are “an acoustic band from Marin” that plays “Geezer Rock.” I heard someone say Garcia’s brother Tiff is in the band.

We went up the hill and around to the other side, stage right. The crowd was laid back. It wasn’t a huge crowd like a Dead show of old. This was a free local event that wouldn’t have the intensity of an actual Grateful Dead appearance. I wondered how many fans would show up if a single surviving member of the band showed up.

The hill was dry and dusty. Most of the grass had been burned away. We spread a blanket. Search Engine Light did a humorous number. “Mothers Don’t Let Your Children to Grow Up and dance Disco.” Then “Sunshine Superman” with a little of the “Put the lime in the coconut and stir it all up” song. There were five musicians onstage and a kid banging on a small drum set. He couldn’t have been more than five.

The crowd really does have a Sixties attitude. There are grizzled veterans in long gray hair, reliving the old days, at least for today. It was scary to see how old some people looked. People seem to be aging with each event. There were some younger people. Some were part of the gypsy caravan that lives on Haight Street. There are family groups making a day of it. Mom and Dad taking the kids to the Rock Show. There are young clean cut couples with babies. They struggle up and down the hill with strollers. There are a lot of dreads. Kathy later remarked that one age group that was missing were teenagers. Maybe they’re waiting for Outside Lands. There were enough younger people there that it certainly looks like the Beat will go on. Many people brought their dogs.

There was that odd cross section of Deadhead types. I’m sure there are computer programmers in this crowd next to other fans that look like they’re either living on the street or a step away. There were old aging biker types. People set up around the edges of the hill, using what little shade there was. There were familiar faces from other free shows, but no one we really know. Many obviously knew each other and there were joyous reunions during the day.

Onstage Check Engine Light wonders what song to do next. Did they forget what song they were going to do next? “It’s an older guy thing,” the singer tells us. They play “Dee Dee.” “Dee Dee thinks she’s Jesus Christ.” Then they play “Mister Charley.” Load up the shotgun!

Check Engine Light is good. Maybe they’re a little too laid back. The sound is great. There is a natural bowl, but it sounded like they really worked on the sound. It is great all day.

Two young women are walking around the crowd with a ripped cardboard sign saying, “Phish” and “We Also Need Ride” in Magic Marker. I assume they’re trying to find tickets. One of them has her legs completely covered in tattoos. It’s something you’d only see in the circus years ago.

A guy sets up to our right. He’s sixty, I’ll guess. Gray hair, beard. He takes off his shirt so everybody can see the electrode things on his beer belly and chest. He still has a hospital ID on his wrist. Did he just escape to get to Jerry Day? He’s wearing a Yankee hat and taunts anyone with a rival baseball hat. He holds his we’re number one finger up.

Vendors wander the crowd. Pinwheels. Ganga cookies. A black guy in dreads and Rasta clothing is selling “The best brownies in San Francisco.” There is quite a variety of bongs, roach clips and other trinkets. Some just lay out their wares on a blanket in front of their spot. There is much smoking, but I don’t see open selling until later. I only saw two San Francisco cops all day. There are private security guards. I do see a guy wandering around later offering buds in his outstretched hands.

A young couple settles in near us. The guy has long dreads. They lay out some small art objects for sale. Most have already set up camp, but some people are still coming in.

A grizzled biker type sets up next to them. He wore a Harley-Davidson of Merced tee shirt, “The Gateway to Yosemite.” It looked like the colors of a biker gang with a picture of Yosemite Falls. (What are the odds? Kathy grew up in Merced.) He sits on a small cooler. Later, he tells war stories of epic Dead shows he’s gone to in the past. Sounds like he’s talking about Watkins Glen. The Biblical epic of a show that had about a billion people at it. “I live four blocks away,” he told the youngsters.

“We live in our van. So, we live right here too.”

During the break there’s a spiel from Rock and Dog Rescue. They tell us of their fine dogitarian work. There are a lot more abandoned pets these days. There were other calls for support and funds for other causes. Help is needed in these dark times. It wasn’t too bad. It reminded me of the endless political diatribes we had to listen to during equipment changes in the old days.

Stu Allen and Friends are warming up onstage and do a version of “CC Rider.” It’s an admitted sound check while they wait for Stu Allen to arrive from the airport. Allen will have a full day playing here with two bands and then he’ll play the After Party that night at The Boom Boom Room. He makes it just in time.

I have to depend on Kathy for many of the song titles. She’s the real Grateful Dead fan. There is the inevitable Google.

“Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo” Across the Rio Grandio.

Stu Allen’s guitar playing and voice sound like Garcia. OK relax, I know he’s not Jerry, but he does sound like him. He’s played in other Grateful Dead related bands including Working Man’s Ed. I think he’s the founder of Working Man’s Ed.

“That Lucky Old Sun.”

Kathy says the next one is from Blues for Allah, “I Will Stay One More Day.”

“Roll Away the Dew”

“Trucking” and “Good Loving.” There’s a great band of “friends” onstage with Allen. Again, the sound is crystal clear. The keyboards, a Roland 700 and a Hammond B3, sound great. The music is much better than I expected. A growing number of people are dancing in an area in front of the stage.

I wondered how long it would be before this event will be posted on YouTube. When would pictures appear on Flickr?

Event security in black jackets wandered around. They didn’t have much to do today. They looked like professional wrestlers with shaved heads and big biceps. What security staff does NOT look like pro wrestlers now?

Sandy Rothman is paged to the stage. He and another guest (A guy in a straw hat that played guitar. I never did catch his name.) will join for the encore.

“Friend of the Devil.” A long version, each song has a lot of jamming.

A guy wandered around with those protective wraparound shades. He had a cane and it looked like he was legally blind. I had spotted him earlier. He kept wandering around the crowd. Maybe he was looking for someone. He stumbled around bumping into people in that “It’s not my fault, I’m blind” kind of way. Another guy stopped near us. Maybe he really was an acid casualty of some kind. He seemed to have a hard time walking. Like he had either forgot how to walk or there was some kind of brain motion disconnect. Maybe he was just old. Why don’t these guys just get a spot and settle down?

An attractive young woman was looking for a place to put on her hula hoop display. It wasn’t that crowded, but there wasn’t enough room for a whirling hula hoop. She did find a spot later when things started rocking more.

Most of the tee shirts today were from old Dead or other shows from the past. Some of the shirts were getting pretty old. There were many from Dead tours in the post Jerry era. Phish was well represented.

There’s a delay and some equipment changes. Melvin Seals and the Jerry Garcia Band take the stage. Melvin is a big man and sits behind the keyboards. Two large black women sing backup. Stu Allen returns to guitar after “rehydrating.” The first song sounds like “Long Way from Home.” They do a great, interesting cover of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” It’s a crowd favorite. Everyone knows this one.

Yankee Electrode guy is waving his drivers license and some other form of ID back and forth in the air. It’s some kind of celebration of survival, or persistence.

They do the Chuck Berry song: “You Never Can Tell.” It’s the one Travolta and Uma dance to in Pulp Fiction. It’s another great cover version. Don’t hear too many Chuck Berry covers nowadays.

“That’s What Love Will Make You Do”

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” I see a young guy fervently singing along. He couldn’t have been born when that song came out. Still, he’s into it. The torch is passed.

Sitting on the side of the hill is OK, but it is getting dusty. It’s steep enough that there is that slow, gradual slide down the hill. We make a move to get a different perspective and to make sure we’re on the side of the crowd where we entered before the end. We estimate 2,000 in this crowd. (The San Francisco Chronicle also estimates 2,000 in an article the next day.)

At the top of the hill kids have congregated, climbing the trees. As people reach the top a young guy leans over and in the hushed conspiratorial tone of the street dealer offers “Doses.”

We listen to a couple of songs at the top of the hill. The stage isn’t that far away. People have started to leave and we find an empty spot near the bleacher area. It’s closer to the stage than our hillside perch. We get a good view of the finale.

The dance area in front of the stage is getting jammed. “After Midnight” brings more people into the relatively polite Hippie mosh pit. People flail their arms. Many are spinning. I see a guy I’ve seen at other shows. His white hair is pulled back in a bun. He looks very serious as he spins and spins, barely in control.

They do another great Beatles’ cover, “Dear Prudence.” The two female back up singers sound great. They slow it down a bit with a “male torch song,” “Tore Up Over You.” Then it’s another Dead song, their version of the Charlie Poole song “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues.” Just about everybody is rocking now.

We start back to the car during “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” It’s been a great little event. As we go up the hill we hear the crowd sing Happy Birthday to Jerry.

I check Flickr and YouTube after a couple of days. There are a few photos. There is a short clip from this year already and clips from Jerry Days from the past. The Jerry Day web site is at http://www.jerryday.org/

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When Conventions and Comics Collide

The gloom and doom stories kept coming. The Virgin Mega-Store in downtown San Francisco had just announced that they would be closing. I knew the trend to buy music online had undercut the brick and mortar stores, but the results still seemed unreal. The empty building would be a huge gap on Market Street. Stacy’s Book Store is a few blocks away. It was closing. I popped in for a last look. The shelves were nearly empty. I was getting tired of all the economic disaster stories.

It was time for Fantasy! The comic book convention, WonderCon, was in town. I joined fans heading to the Moscone Center. It was easy to tell where these people were heading. Banners on the light poles along the way said: WonderCon/Celebrating the Popular Arts. Superheroes in latex costumes mingled with wizards, fairies and alien creatures. There was a strange mix of medieval and outer space characters. It was Friday, day one of WonderCon.

How would WonderCon in San Francisco survive the economic storm? What would attendance be like? Would people be buying? If there would be any sign of economic recovery, it might be seen here and not in the real estate market.

By a confluence of events, I was able to spend most of the weekend at this year’s WonderCon. I’ve been a comic book fan for a long time, but I’ll admit I rarely buy comics now. The convention is when I catch up with what’s going on in the comics world.

This would be a true busman’s holiday for me. I’ve worked at many conventions at Moscone. I know my way around the building. I’ve worked computer tech and medical conferences. I’ve registered Eye Doctors, Real Estate agents, Urologists, Geophysicists, and Anesthesiologists. I’ve worked Oracle, Cisco and MacWorld. There were IRS conferences and World Wide Developer gatherings. I’ve been a line monitor for Steve Jobs Apple Keynote speech. I’ve worked Linux and Google, The Audio Engineering Society, The Fancy Foods show, and maybe the strangest of all: The Wealth Expo. At The Wealth Expo many rich entrepreneurs, including Donald Trump and Anthony Robbins, were sharing their knowledge with hundreds of attendees who paid to hear how to make a fortune.

The Moscone convention center is all steel, glass and concrete. It’s starting to show its age. Imperial Storm Troopers from a Star Wars re-creation group are in perfect uniform. They act as line monitors, directing people downstairs. I see a huge line downstairs and wonder if I should bail out and come back later, but it turns out the exhibition floor hasn’t opened yet. The line is for people already registered and waiting to be the first to get onto the exhibit floor. The line for registration isn’t very long at all. I found out that some people had been waiting for four hours so they could be among the first on the exhibit floor. Again I hesitate to get in the big line, but decide to just go with it. The line is let in a few at a time to avoid a stampede.

It’s all about the swag. A few tables near the front entrance offer sample comics, posters, badges, cards, buttons and other free items. It’s like any other convention. People love free stuff, no matter what it is. Someone is offering free tickets for a preview of a new TV show, “Sit Down, Shut Up.” Henry Winkler, The Fonz, will be there. I pass on that one.

The area used for the exhibit floor is smaller. Some of it is curtained off. It doesn’t dull the enthusiasm of the vendors or fans. I’ve learned that at many trade shows, the first hour is when the vendors buy and sell from each other. I’ve heard some dealers say that’s when they make the most money. It’s half the reason they come.

I’ve been on many comics convention exhibit floors. Seeing all those comics displayed still arouses the comic lust. It seems you could find just about any comic on this exhibit floor. Boxes and boxes are set out. What if comics really do rot your brain?

The really good expensive issues are hung in plastic at the back of the booths, where the vendors can keep an eye on them. One vendor displayed a copy of Zap #1. It was for sale at $950!

The DC booth is giving away some great stuff including a reprint of the first Watchmen comic: “Re-Presenting The First Issue of the Groundbreaking Series.” After over twenty years of development and false starts, the highly anticipated movie will hit movie screens in less than a week.

You could spend days going through each vendors treasures, but I’ve learned that the best part of a comic book convention is the programming. It’s at the lectures, panels and other events that you get to see and hear the artists of the comics and the stars of TV shows and movies the comics are based on. This year’s programming is over the top. I’ve also learned to use their web site to see where and when the events I want to see are happening. I see there will be some tough choices.

I meet long time colleague and comic book collector Mike Pavlik. We wander the exhibit hall. It’s comic book heaven. Pavlik reminds me of the first comics conventions in the Bay Area. Another trader we knew, Bob Borden, was involved in running the first conventions when they were held in Oakland. “We should have been comic heroes!” Pavlik says. We were, or at least we thought we were. I’ve got to get those old copies of The Dip online!

Near the back of the hall we come upon Autograph Row. There are celebrities selling photos and autographs. The huge but friendly Richard Kiel is at the first table I see. He had many roles, but is best remembered as “Jaws” in the Bond movies. Nearby is Jon Provost, Timmy Martin from the Lassie TV series. It’s great to get a glimpse of icons and idols of the past, but the bottom line is that they want a contribution for an autograph or picture. Most of them charge $20. Can’t blame the celebrities for making a buck, but there is a weird dynamic going on here. They’re friendly, but it’s going to cost you for that treasured memento.

There’s a big surprise on Autograph Row. It’s The Honky Tonk Man and next to him at the table, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine! Two professional wrestlers who were with Vince MacMahon’s World Wrestling Federation when he revolutionized professional wrestling on cable TV. I’d just seen the movie: “The Wrestler.” Valentine looked like the Mickey Roarke character. The Hammer looks a bit beefy, but he still looks like a man not to be trifled with.

There is an area for the comic book artists to show and sell their work. Many will do an original drawing for you, for a price. The energetic Sergio Aragones, the creator of Groo the Wanderer, has a booth. I think I’ve seen him at every comic book convention I’ve been at.

Almost anything Star Wars related still sells and commands a high price. People are lined up to get a Mark Hammill autograph for $100. You can buy a second autograph for $90. People are lining up. Carrie Fisher will be appearing and signing autographs on Saturday and Sunday.

There are others on Autograph Row. Don Pedro Colley was one of the futuristic beings on the second Planet of the Apes movies. Barbara Luna of Star Trek fame is there. Others include: Ray Park, who played Darth Maul. Gary Lockwood who was in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sean Kenny was the original captain of the Enterprise. He was Captain Pike in the Star Trek pilot. The sexy alien from FarScape, Gigi Edgley is here!She’s unrecognizable without the makeup.

Some of the attendees look stranger than the inhabitants of Autograph Row. This is a great place for “costume play.” It’s a chance to be Catwoman, Green Lantern or Super Girl for a day.

I soak in some of the first day buzz on the floor, but it’s time for the first event I’ve planned on going to. It’s part of “The Comics Art Conference.” It’s the conference within a conference, offering a more academic look at the comics industry:

“The conference is designed to bring together comics scholars, practitioners, critics, and historians who want to be involved in the dynamic process of evolving an aesthetic and a criticism of the comics medium.” It’s funny to see the scorned and reviled comic book getting a scholarly, academic approach.

The first session is “Between Two Flashes: A Survey of American Superhero Comics.” The speakers are Doug Highsmith from California State University, East Bay and Chuck Huber from the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s a look at Superhero comics of the early Fifties 1951-1956, “An era that is largely ignored in comics history.”

Both speakers say they’re Baby Boomers, born in 1952. (Same as me.) They missed the comics at the time they came out, but read them later. They explain that this was because they lived in the relative isolation of Central Illinois. They only mention it because they had limited access to comics. It made me feel lucky growing up in Chicago. I had a whole route to check on new comics at neighborhood stores and the drug store magazine racks. Comic books were despised back then. There was still a backlash from Dr. Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent.” For most Baby Boomers comics were the first contraband.

They’re surprised at how big the room is. It’s a big conference room with tables. It’s a classroom setting. He hopes the conference can fill the room up later when some of the opening day excitement is over. It’s a small audience, but The Batman is here! Sitting next to him is a Heath Ledger Joker.

“We are fans, not scholars.” You could have fooled me. The lecture is a bit dry, but the slides of comic covers and Superheroes from the Fifties keeps me focused. There’s a handout of a chart of relatively obscure comic book characters from the Fifties and their publishing fates.

My attention starts to drift. In the early Sixties my family would rent a cottage in Wisconsin. We’d get away from the concrete for a week. It would be a great adventure, but we were city kids and sometimes the week got a little boring. We discovered someone’s secret stash of comics jammed under the cushions in an old sofa. I was just really getting into comic books back then and realized these old comics were just what I was looking for. There were old issues of Showcase and The Brave and The Bold with The Flash, Green Lantern and Adam Strange. Some of the characters discussed today were in those comics. I found stories I had only read about in the letters to the “Mailbag” columns. It was like finding buried treasure. I realized that comic books had a history.

A big turning point in the speaker’s attitude towards comics was Jim Steranko’s book, The History of Comic Books. The book got him interested in looking at comics in a more academic way. Not too many people thought that way back then.

We take a look at the superhero landscape of the Fifties. The early Fifties were a tough time for superhero comics, but other genres flourished. The repressive Cold War times were reflected in censorship. The pulp magazines were dead, but it wasn’t a dark age for everybody. EC and Dell were prosperous. Television was just starting.

Comic artists didn’t have ownership of the characters they created. Many were paid by the page. The medium itself was meant to be ephemeral. It was “junk art” as Art Spiegelman said, that was meant to be thrown away.

DC and Marvel weren’t the only comics companies back then. Smaller companies like Harvey and Charlton gave us some strange characters. There was The Fly and Captain Atom.

In the late Forties the popularity of Superheroes diminished. The Axis had been defeated and readers were tired of stories about Hitler and the Japanese. When the Axis were no longer a threat, Superheroes lost their attraction. Captain America was killed off! They tried the Red Menace Communists as a new villain, but it never worked with comics fans. It just wasn’t the same.

There were some Superheroes who survived and overlapped the two eras. Captain Video was a character who bridged from early TV to comics. There was the strange case of Blackhawk. Blackhawk was the leader of a group of paramilitary fighter pilots usually involved in saving the world from some super creep or apocalyptic catastrophe. Blackhawk #107 was put out by The Quality Company. The character was sold to DC and issue # 108 was the first DC Blackhawk. It was one of those publishing oddities that drive comic collectors crazy.

Other genres that thrived in the Fifties were Romance, Horror and Crime comics. This was the golden age of Romance comics. There were still “Humor” comics. A slide shows covers of Scrooge McDuck and Archie comics. Both are still being published. The “funny little animal” books were still popular. Mad magazine was a big influence. There were still “Hodge Podge collections of a variety of comic stories. Western and Detective comics were still big.

AGC comics gave us “the spawn of Prince Valiant.” Tales of knights in shining armor were popular for a while. DC gave us The Brave and The Bold, an anthology series with stories about medieval adventure and romance. There was The Black Knight, a character that survived into the Silver Age.

The Lone Ranger and Zorro combined two genres, the Western and the masked Superhero. The slide shows The Lone Ranger in a red shirt. In the next issue he had the blue shirt that he wore from then on. It’s another piece of collecting minutiae.

“The lawsuit had a big effect.” DC sued Fawcett, claiming their costumed characters were a bit too similar to the DC superheroes. The courts agreed and Fawcett went out of business.

Despite DC’s legal win, more characters were created by rival companies. Plastic Man thrived. Airboy was revived. There were short series. Harvey had Captain 3-D, a one shot by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. Fighting American was another short, patriotic series. Johnny Quick was the last Superhero to survive from the Golden Age. He had been in DC comics since 1939.

Why did the Superheroes come back? Movie serials were still popular. Kirk Allyn starred in Atom Man versus Superman. The serial was a big hit, but it was the success of the Superman TV show that saved comics. Comic book sales skyrocketed. Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s pal, was a long running success. Superman had saved the day again.

In the early Fifties some Superheroes would avoid using their superpowers until desperately needed. J’onn J’onzz, The Martian Manhunter, tried to solve cases by crime detection alone, even though on Earth he had superpowers like Superman. He only used his superpowers when in dire need.

One of the reasons the backup characters in comics got cut was a change in the page count. Comic books went from 48 to 40 pages to cut costs. They had to drop some backup characters. The stories with these characters usually appeared in the last story of the book. Some of these minor characters had “convoluted publishing histories.”

The last slide is of Mighty Mouse. Does he belong in this discussion? Is he a superhero? Of course he is. Mighty Mouse is one of the few continuously published superheroes.

I left the academic comic world and wandered the exhibit floor again. There were people parading around in impressive costumes. Most of them were excellent and showed attention to detail. I saw Gumby walking around and the Wookie. Three women were the fairies from Sleeping Beauty. There was more than one enigmatic Rorschach from the Watchmen lurking around.

Mike Pavlik takes me to meet a buddy of his, Al Kizziah, who owns a comics store on Market Street. He’s manning a booth. Pavlik says that Al and I “were separated at birth.” He does have a point and there is a resemblance, although it might be in our attitudes. There are people browsing in his booth. Pavlik and I are curious about how business has been. Al is upbeat and says it’s been good. I’m a bit surprised. It’s easy to see that not many people are spending. Many vendors don’t seem too happy.

Later, I learn that Al’s shop is having the financial difficulties that are plaguing most of us these days. Al’s store is something of a social center for comics fans. There is a web site dedicated to keeping him in business, www.savealscomics.com.

I was going to justify my weekend here by going to some of the more “business” oriented lectures. Unfortunately the “Everything You Wanted to Know About Comics Retailing” panel was at the same time as “The Real Indiana Jones.” I didn’t make it to the panel on copyright law either. There was always something more interesting or entertaining to go to.

It was time for: “The Real Archaeology of Indiana Jones.” The speaker is Daryl G. Frazetti, a teacher in Anthropology at Lake Tahoe Community College. We’re in one of the smaller rooms and it’s packed. I’ll guess two hundred in attendance. The Batman and Joker I had seen at “Between Two Flashes” are here! I must be in the right place. Frazetti says his talk will be about “When Indiana Jones meets reality.” Frazetti is a small guy. He leans over the raised panelist’s table, beaming with obvious enthusiasm. An interesting slide presentation guides us along.

We know Indiana Jones is a fictional character, but how much of the films have some basis in reality? Frazetti uses this presentation as an introduction for Archaeology 101 students. “Is Archaeology exciting?” There are no Nazis chasing you. No blonde bombshells trying to seduce you. It’s a lot of tedious work. Frazetti asks the crowd, “How many here have done REAL Archaeology?” A surprising amount of hands go up. “Was it exciting?” Many say yes, it was exciting. It was a different kind of excitement, but there were rewards. Frazetti quotes Indy from The Crystal Skull: “To be a good Archaeologist, you have to get out of the library.”

There is a time limitation, so the lecture is fast paced. We start with the search for the Ark of the Covenant. There are so many legends and theories about the Ark that we could spend all day just talking about them.

We do know the Ark was made from the wood of the Shittah tree, what we call the acacia. Almost everything else about the Ark is subject to speculation. There are different theories about what it looked like, how big it was, what it was for and where it wound up. Tradition says the Ark was an impressive object covered in gold. Some say the Ark was a wooden box and not very ornate.

It’s believed the Egyptians took it to Tanis, a small town outside of Cairo. It may have been smuggled there to keep it out of the hands of conquering Romans. This is why Indiana Jones went to Egypt in the movie. There is a legend that King Mekelik I took it to Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church says they have The Ark in a church near Axum in Ethiopia, but they will not let anyone see it. “Why won’t they let anyone see it?” The Church says it is sacred, but some say The Church fears it will lose some of its mystery if it is seen. The Church could lose some of the mystic power it has over its believers.

It may have wound up in Ireland. The home of Ireland’s ancient chieftain rulers was excavated, because it was thought The Grail might be there.

Frazetti encourages questions and comments at any time. “How could the Ark physically survive for three thousand years?” Wouldn’t it just rot away, no matter what it was made of? The Ark was considered sacred and so it was probably better preserved than other artifacts of the time. It may have been hidden for years, and that would have helped preserve it.

Any discussion of The Ark could go on for a long time. Frazetti pushes us on to the next movie, The Temple of Doom. Did we know the filming of The Temple of Doom was banned in India? Some planned scenes were considered racist by the authorities. It was feared scenes of gruesome sacrifice would create an image problem for the Hindu religion. They particularly objected to the ripping out of a human heart while the victim was still alive. This doesn’t happen in the Hindu religion where the whole sacrifice, including the spilled blood was offered to the gods. The Aztecs ripped the heart out as part of the sacrifice, not the Hindus.

Kali, the god worshipped by the cult in Temple of Doom was not considered evil in the Hindu tradition except to the lower castes. She was the goddess of death and destruction, but she was a Hindu goddess who protected the believers from their enemies. To the upper castes Kali was a gentle mother goddess who was fierce in protecting her followers. The lower castes had more fear of Kali as the evil bringer of destruction.

The Thugees were real. They made the Guinness Book of World Records for murder. The Thugees were notorious for joining groups of travelers, gaining their trust and then robbing and killing them. We’re shown a picture of their longtime leader, Behram. He led the cult from 1790 to 1830. He must have been a remarkable character to lead the original thugs for that long.

The Sankara Stones that were stolen from the village in the movie are real. The stones showed no signs of being shaped by tools, like the Crystal Skulls we’ll talk about later. They are considered powerful objects. The Stones are said to have strange mystical powers.

Was the Holy Grail real? That is a question for the ages. It’s a debate that has gone on for almost a thousand years. Much of early English Literature and folklore is about the story of the search for The Grail.

There is a legend that after Lucifer’s coup failed, he hurled his crown to Earth. The Grail was made from the emeralds of the discarded crown. It was used at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimithea caught drops of Christ’s blood with it at Calvary. Many believe it was taken to Glastonbury.

We’re shown a slide of Petra, shown in the movie as the hiding place of The Grail. It was a very successful trading city in modern day Jordan. It was a crucial rest stop for caravans. The Nabateans who lived there were very successful trading myrrh. The winding stone entrance to Petra that is shown in the movie is called the Shiq. Tradition has it that Moses found water when he threw his staff at the rock and a spring burst out.

The Ark and the Holy Grail weren’t the only relics Hitler searched for. There was a part of the SS, the Ahnenerbe, that was devoted to searching for other iconic relics like the Spear of Destiny and the Crystal Skulls.

There are evil Archaeologists in the Indiana Jones movies. There is the strange story of Otto Rahn. He was already looking for relics with spiritual power. Hitler heard about him and bankrolled him. There is mystery surrounding his fate. He just walked off and was found frozen in the mountains of Germany. The SS claimed he just walked away, but it’s suspected they did him in. “You don’t blow off Hitler.”

The discussion of The Crystal Skulls starts out by questioning the movie’s ending. Frazetti says he “doesn’t feel right with The Area 51 theory” in the movie. The aliens are just too convenient of an ending. It doesn’t explain the mystery of the Skulls. It seems too quick and easy a solution.

A young guy in the back of the room disagrees. So, you don’t have a problem with the wrath of God stuff, but you don’t like the alien theory? This young guy is mad that the visitors from the stars have been dismissed so easily, but divine intervention seems to be OK. I see this guy later talking to a couple of guys in their booth about it. He’s still mad that the alien deux ex machina has been rejected.

“There’s another Hitler tie-in. There’s a lot of Nazi tie-ins.” Hitler was fascinated by the theories of the Hollow Earth Society. They believed a master race lived inside of our hollowed out Earth. The Nazis spent much time and effort trying to find the entrance to the hollow earth. Were the Crystal Skulls a sign or a test? The lucky or worthy that found the skulls would be guided to the advanced civilization inside the earth.

One thing Frazetti says he wanted to cover in more detail was the use of Archaeologists in espionage. “There’s actually a lot of truth to this.” Governments did use Archaeologists to get information, especially in remote areas. Archaeologists knew the local terrain and had a cover if suspected. They were just exploring to find artifacts.

What were the skulls? They’re believed to be 5,000 to 35,000 years old. They show no signs of being made by machine. The carving ignores the natural crystal axis. It’s claimed they were made by an unknown, advanced technology.

An Archaeologist, Mitchell Hodges found many of the skulls. In a strange twist, his daughter claimed that they had predicted the JFK assassination.

The strangest thing about many of the Skulls is that some of them were sent to museums anonymously. They would just arrive in plain packaging. It’s said The British Museum has some of them. Some were auctioned in 1943. Crystal skulls have been found in Tibet. Do they have a link to the Hindu god, Kali?

It’s been an interesting lecture on a fascinating subject. I have to wonder how long it would go on without a time limitation.

I went to the premiere of a new documentary on Bob Wilkins, the long time host of Creature Features. Wilkins brought new life to late night “Monster movies.” “Keep America Strong: Watch Horror Movies” chronicles his career. Tom Wyrsch started collecting clips of the old show and saved them from oblivion. Wilkins had recently passed away. There would be “A Tribute to Bob Wilkins” on Sunday.

I gathered my swag and called it a day. There would be two more days of WonderCon.

Saturday. Day Two. I had a delicious brownie and got on the bus going downtown. The Geeks are gathering. At the convention center there is one of the longest lines I’ve ever seen at Moscone. It wraps around the side of the building and goes a long way down Third Street. It’s funny though. No one seems to mind getting in line. It’s part of the fun, I guess. There is an odd spirit of camaraderie, but I’m glad I have my pass and avoid the line.

The biggest, most anticipated event of the weekend is a panel on the movie, The Watchmen. The expected blockbuster will be hitting the screens in less than a week after the convention. It’s assumed some footage will be shown. The event is in a large ballroom called The Esplanade. There are two big screens at the front of the room. The crowd buzzes like before a rock concert. While we’re waiting the lights dim for a few seconds and the crowd reacts with applause, shouts and a scramble for seats. It’s a false alarm.

The seats are filling up, and they have to get the crowd to fill the empty seats in the middle of the rows. “Your backpack doesn’t need a seat.” They ask people to hold up their hands if there’s an empty seat next to them. They expect the room to be full.

It’s show time, and after a short introduction a clip from the movie is shown. We expected a trailer length teaser. The opening credits last at least twenty minutes and they are a sweeping history of the alternate universe The Watchmen live in. It’s very similar to our Earth, but Nixon is still President. There would be a pause between scenes. We expected the clip to end, and then another scene would begin. They showed about forty-five minutes!

One of the opening scenes shows one of the Watchmen, The Comedian, on the Grassy Knoll. He’s just done some shooting and is calmly making his getaway. Conspiracy buffs can tell he’s facing the road in plain sight of witnesses. It’s a conspiracy goof, but in an alternate universe anything can happen.

Another scene is the wild celebration at the end of WWII. In a takeoff on the famous kissing photo, one of the Watchmen heroines walks up to another young woman in the raucous crowd and gives her a long lingering kiss. The preview audience reacts with cheers. It is San Francisco.

After a short discussion of the movie there is a Q&A. The first guy in line is quite a knucklehead. The clip is awesome. They all did an awesome job. The acting is awesome. The special effects are awesome. “That’s an awesome question,” one of the panel quips.

Dave Gibbons and the director Zach Snyder are here to talk about the movie. Allan Moore is known to be very displeased with most movie treatment of his work. No one expects him to be here. There is some discussion of the problems of bringing Watchmen to the screen. The project had many starts and delays. It’s quite a preview of a movie fans have been waiting for years to see.

There are unique photo opportunities all over the convention center. Wonder Woman and Lara Croft mingled with characters from Manga Anime. There were several groups with a Batman, a Robin, a Joker and Nightshade.

There was a guy wearing a particularly meticulous costume of The Vision. He posed with a group of Superheroes including a Batman in front of the convention center. Two guys dressed as The Mario Brothers ran up to the group. “Can we get in?” The group posed for more pictures. The Mario Brothers gave each other a high five. “Where else can that happen?” one of them exulted.

I wandered the floor some more. I noticed a small group in Star Fleet uniforms. A group of four Klingons in accurate costumes were approaching. They looked kind of beefy under their prosthetics. They drank from large Klingon mugs. Not a bad way to get away with walking around drinking beer. A skinny Star Fleet officer approached the Klingons, “Would you do us a favor?” he asked, holding a camera. This could be trouble. “We are NOT in the habit of doing favors for Star Fleet!” one answered in a robust manner. They left the Star Fleet officer hanging for a minute, but they did pose for a picture.

Near the back of the exhibit floor were the Steam Alchemy guys. I thought they were a theater group until I went by their booth later. They were dressed in Victorian era costumes with early technological gadgets. They had Steampunk monocles and other gadgets that came right out of the old Wild Wild West TV show. Their table offered “Wild West guns” and “Bracer Flame Cannons.”

The men’s room was crowded. It’s not Rock concert crowded, but busy. Batman came out of one of the stalls. “Look man, Batman’s taking a crap!” I have to admit I haven’t given this Superhero problem much thought lately. The young man’s friends protested. “C’mon man!” Yeah, give a guy wearing a Batman costume a break. “Well, he IS coming out of a stall!” Batman went to the sink. He adjusted his utility belt, tipped his cowl straight and walked out, with the dignity that only someone wearing a cape and cowl could have.

I was trying to spend no more money than the admission price, but copies of The Amazing Spiderman #583 with Obama on the cover caught my eye. Marvel must have printed a zillion of these. It’s an odd collector’s piece, although with all the copies printed there probably wouldn’t be much collector’s value. I learned later it was one of Marvel’s highest selling comics ever. Still, I had to get one. For three bucks it made a good conversation piece even though the Obama pictured in the story didn’t look like Obama.

There will be a new Star Trek movie coming out soon. Another Star Trek movie? I had my doubts, but I heard several people say it looked great, and would bring new life to the franchise.

The exhibit floor is big enough that I had missed “The Museum of Lost Wonders” booth. They draw a small crowd. “What is this?” It’s one of the best and strangest web sites I’ve ever seen. It’s another alternate reality. They’re selling books, calendars and models of the Lost Wonders. They are doing some business.

There was a panel on “The Death of DC.” What does that mean? I’d lost track of the apocalyptic crises of the DC universe after they had split and shattered the DC world way back with the Crisis on Infinite Earths series. That was over twenty years ago. “The repercussions of Final Crisis are here!” “Could the days of the DC Universe be numbered?”

On my way to “The Death of DC” panel an image on the screen in the Comics Arts Conference catches my eye. It was from the “V for Vendetta” movie. I popped in for some of the talk. “Should Governments Be Afraid of Their People? Fascism in V for Vendetta.” The confusing Apocalypse of DC comics would have to wait. The speaker was Kate McClancy from Duke University. The political and sociological analysis was interesting. I hadn’t planned on seeing this, but stuck around for the talk on another Allan Moore work.

The only problem with all the great programming was that there was just so much of it, that I was missing stuff I really wanted to see. Hanging out at the “V for Vendetta” talk made me miss the trailer for “Alien Trespass.” It’s an independent film that is a tribute to the Science Fiction movies of the Fifties. It does have an impressive cast for an independent film. Eric MacCormack, who was the Will in the TV show Will and Grace, is in it. During the Q&A, a fan calls him Will. The room went quiet for a minute. It’s got to be irritating to an actor. Like a spiritualist of old, MacCormack tried to channel “Will” to see what he thinks. It looks like he’s tempted to go into character, but he doesn’t.

How’s this for a combination of high and low brow culture? It’s a presentation on a new computer game based on Dante’s Inferno! A panel of the game developers talks about adapting the classic poem to the world of computer games. There were some problems, “All they do in the book is talk.” The game takes us on Dante and Virgil’s trip through the circles of hell. The developers admit there is more action in the game. Another difference is the character of Dante, who looks like some kind of medieval Transformer. They admit Dante wasn’t this musclebound, but they had to make some concessions to the world of computer games.

There were so many events going on, that it was sometimes hard to pick. I missed “Comic Book Heaven” and “The Power of Comics.” “It Came From 1979” sounded interesting. “Re-appreciate the camp classics of 1979 ... the films that didn’t change a nation.”

Another event that sounded interesting was “The Amazing O-Man! Barack Obama and the Superhero Metaphor.” Science Fiction fans were very excited to have someone in the White House who has been seen flashing the Vulcan salute.

Daryl Frazetti was giving another talk on “The Anthropology of Star Trek,” but I didn’t think I could sit through another lecture. I also took a pass on the Costume Contest. Maybe I needed a little dose of reality.

It’s Sunday. Day Three. I’m really pushing myself just to get downtown and show up for more. It’s not as crazy as Saturday. Saturday had brought in big crowds with The Watchmen event and the Costume Contest. People in costume are starting to look normal to me. I’m starting to wonder who’s in costume and who is not.

I pop into a room to see “Super Capers” a feature film that will be released in the spring. I don’t have much interest until I see Adam West on the panel! West doesn’t say much, leaving others to hype the film, but during the Q&A he’s asked the dread two part question: What does he think of the new treatments of Batman? What is his favorite version of Batman? West admits a bit of jealousy for the newer versions of The Caped Crusader. He didn’t get to stretch out much as an actor, like most of the new Batmen could. “My favorite is me,” he says to applause.

I go back to the Comics Arts Conference for “Superhero Science 101.” Comics weren’t always centered on Science Fiction. There were a lot more “Outer Space” and Science Fiction stories in the Sixties. Comics writers at least tried to give some kind of scientific explanation to Superheroes and their adventures.

The first obvious problem, pointed out by letter writers to the comics, was that space is a vacuum. There was no sound in outer space. So the Zaps and Booms in outer space were not scientifically accurate. The sound panels were too much a part of comic books by then and they stayed.

Even some of the more improbable plot lines like alternate universes are starting to get some credibility from modern Physics. What would happen if the Irresistible Force collided with the Immovable Object? What if The Flash smashed into Superman? The debate raged on.

The Nineteenth Century was the Chemical Age. The Twentieth Century was the Physics age. The Twenty-first Century would be the Age of Biology. The use of genetic mutation in comics made it easier to create more characters. Mutations were caused by “The X Gene” in the Marvel world. DC had “The Meta-Gene.” There was little limit to the imagination to create new heroes and villains.

“It took a long time for comics to be accepted as art. Why did it take so long? Is it really accepted now?” These are the questions asked at “Comic Art in the Gallery” by Kim Munson.

Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol used comic book images in some of their art, but “It was an aberration.” A slide showing “Lucky Strike” a painting by Stuart Davis from 1924 shows that comics were affecting art. The Whitney Museum of American Art gave comics some credibility with a show in 1983. The Art world was still slow to accept any comic book images as Art. We hear the Art Spiegelman quote again about comics being considered junk, not art.

There was the High and Low Show at MOMA in New York in 1990. It caused an artistic and political split. Critics claimed it was “the end of History.” Los Angeles had the “High and Low Show: Masters of American Comics” in Los Angeles in 2005. There was a search for a “canon.” Fifteen Masters were named. Art Spiegelman was among them, but he got mad when some of his pieces were censored. He sent his art to the Jewish Museum’s show.

Spiegelman does not leave any art to MOMA. He’s still mad, but he’s also afraid there is “no context” to the work he would leave. If his work was censored, it would just wind up in the basement. “It’s the worst thing for an artist, to have your art stored in a museum basement, out of public sight.”

In Art, the emphasis is on technique. Most comics are more concerned with the story, the narrative. Early comics exhibitions had a problem “framing the entire sequence.” Galleries had been designed with huge canvases in mind and had problems displaying comic art. “Comics are about story.” There was no narrative context. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco got around this problem by showing whole stories in its Tezuka: Master of Manga show. Hey! I saw that show!

Maybe it’s not that big of a deal to have comic books accepted as Art. Comic books are a world of its own.

“A Tribute to Bob Wilkins” is held in one of the smaller rooms. People are lining up early and it’s going to be a full room. Wilkins still has many hard core fans. It’s hard to explain how much Wilkins meant to fans of Horror and Science Fiction back in the days before Star Wars. His deadpan humor and sarcasm kept us watching some horrible films.

The tribute starts with an old animated Toyota commercial featuring Bob Wilkins with the ever present cigar. There is a short clip of him in a cemetery. He had brought some films to be buried. They should not see the light of day again.

John Stanley is our moderator today. After Wilkins walked away from Creature Features, he helped Stanley continue the show. Stanley encourages us to share personal memories and anecdotes about the man.

Wilkins was a small guy with sandy blonde hair. Horror hosts usually have an outlandish Halloween appearance. Wilkins wore a suit and tie. He was soft spoken but had a savage wit. His punch lines were delivered with an expressionless deadpan delivery. He usually smoked a cigar. The bigger the cigar, the worse the movie was.

Wilkins worked at a TV station in Sacramento. An executive at the station thought he would make a good host for the horror movies they were recycling on late night TV. The first movie they showed was “Attack of the Mushroom People.” Wilkins decided that he wouldn’t try to talk people into watching the dreadful movies they were showing. He knew if he tried to talk people into watching, they wouldn’t watch. He would try to talk them into watching something else. He’d bring a TV guide and read what was on the other channels. The time was right for his unconventional sense of humor. People started watching to have a laugh and “to see what would happen.”

It was a different time. There is so much about television and media that we take for granted now. You couldn’t tape the show. You had to be in front of a TV on Saturday night to see it. Not only was there no TIVO, there wasn’t even VHS then!

In 1971 he moved to the Bay Area and KRON TV. The programming director at KRON put the Creature Features show on a little earlier, at 9 p.m on Saturday nights. They were surprised by huge ratings.

Wilkins was an advertising agent. He did all the advertising for the Chuck E. Cheese pizza franchises. Oddly, Wilkins was a day person. Creature Features was taped during the day. He wasn’t a fan of “Monster” movies, but he did have a 16 mm projector at home and he did watch all the movies. He admitted he didn’t know much about the movies until he started working for the show. “Now, thanks to people like you, I’m an expert.”

Another Wilkins memory for fans was The Captain Cosmic TV show on KRON. There are cheers from the audience. He would wear what looked like a San Diego Chargers football helmet and a cheesy caped super hero costume. Wilkins wasn’t too happy with the arrangement. “Were there any personal appearances as Captain Cosmic?” No, he never left the studio in that costume. It was obvious who Captain Cosmic was, but Wilkins rarely admitted he was Captain Cosmic.

Next up is Mr. Lobo. A panelist slips and calls him “Eric.” “It’s Mr. Lobo,” we’re reminded. There are a lot of secret identities flying around the convention center this weekend. Mr. Lobo is trying to continue the Horror Host tradition on his show Cinema Insomnia. He first met Wilkins when he interviewed him for Planet X Magazine. They hit it off and he started writing bits for Wilkins’ show. Wilkins suggested that Mr. Lobo should be a Horror Host.

Like most in the room Mr. Lobo has memories of watching Creature Features as a kid. He tells of watching the old movies in his Spiderman pajamas. It was a rare bonding experience with his father. He never imagined he would be a Horror Host himself.

Mr. Lobo is asked about bringing back a Creature Feature type show. He had a lengthy conversation with Channel 20, KTEH. They asked about his demographics and got much information, but never hired him.

Mr. Lobo’s parents weren’t thrilled with his new career choice. Wilkins realized this and called Mr. Lobo’s mother. She was worried about her son, but Wilkins reassured her about her son’s strange career choice.

“Bob was special, and more important he saw the ‘specialness’ in people. There were different Bobs.” Mr. Lobo concludes with, “He was the man I’d like to be.”

John Stanley heard that Wilkins was retiring from the Creature Features show. He called Wilkins. Wilkins asked him why he called. Stanley was a reporter for The Chronicle and said it was a news story. “Have you thought about taking over my job?” Wilkins asked him. Stanley said he never thought of it, but soon he was in the yellow rocking chair. Creature Features went on for another nine years.

Stanley tells the story of his first show as host. Wilkins was at the first show in the control booth. He said he would “save” Stanley’s ass at some point. The first movie Stanley showed was “a snake movie” called “Stanley.” Continuing the tradition of strange guests, Stanley had a snake expert and his python on the show. The snake slipped away from his handler and bolted for Stanley. “Watch out!” Wilkins yelled from the safety of the control booth. He did save his ass.

Wilkins helped create a community with Creature Features. In the days before the Star Wars phenomenon Creature Features was one of the few places that you could find out about new Science Fiction and Horror movies or other events. This was before the revenge of the nerds.

Wilkins presented many strange guests in his years on Creature Features. Most were Horror and Science Fiction stars plugging their latest movie. Among the elite of Science Fiction and Horror who were interviewed on Creature Features were: Forrest Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen, William Shatner, Christopher Lee, George Takei and Buster Crabbe!

There were bizarre guests. UFO enthusiasts told us that aliens could be seen every day wandering the Bay Area. A young guy wearing antennae regularly saw “Venusians and Jupiterians” walking the streets of San Francisco. There was a young couple who had spent much time and money producing a robot.

Wilkins was contacted occasionally by “vampires” who wanted to be on the show. “Can you come down to the studio tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock?” Wilkins would ask the supposed bloodsucker. Of course he would! “Then you’re not a vampire!” Wilkins had caught him. A real vampire would not come out in the daylight.

Wilkins was once asked if he was a bit patronizing to his more unusual guests. Was inviting them on the show and giving them exposure encouraging psychosis? No, Wilkins answered, “Psychosis has been in the Bay Area a long time before I arrived.”

Wilkins was once given a plaque from George Lucas, praising his early influence on the director. “Whatever happened to George?” Wilkins dryly wondered.

The Creature Features show was taped once a week. They only had two hours of studio time and they couldn’t go over. God forbid that Betty Ann Bruno’s “On the Square” TV show would be delayed.

There’s a Q&A, and again Stanley asks for personal reminiscences and stories of Bob Wilkins.

There was a fan who went to Reno. He had a copy of the just published Bob Wilkins Scrapbook in the car and noticed an address on the back. Well, he was in Reno anyway and went to the address. Wilkins answered the door. The fan explained how he found the address and Wilkins asked him in. “This is the house that Horror built,” Wilkins told him. He was very gracious and they had a nice conversation.

Stanley asks a young black guy for his memories of Wilkins. The guy appears to be a bit challenged. Maybe it’s a speech impediment. He struggles a bit, but gives a heartfelt speech. He says it’s sad that Bob isn’t here physically anymore. It’s a sad moment. “Bob was the greatest man I ever met.”

Underground comics veteran Trina Robbins is sitting right behind me. “Why isn’t there programming like that anymore?”

John Stanley explains the system of syndication packages. There was always a contract to get a package of films for a station’s broadcasting. Some films had to be shown at least once in prime time. After that it was up to the station’s programming department. The “film department” decided what movies Wilkins would show. They were usually the bottom of the barrel.

Another problem was the boom in infomercials. Stations were paid to show them and this was a double bonus for them. They didn’t have to provide any programming and got paid for airtime. It also became harder to find two hour slots of time for the movies that were still available.

In 1980 KRON was sued for violating some of the agreements regarding transmission rules. They had been bouncing their signal off a satellite and broadcasting into areas outside their syndication area. They lost and had to cut their territory back.

Cable TV changed everything. The old syndication rules went out the window, but increased competition and the spread of infomercials doomed a show like Creature Features. Lobo says it’s hard to get films now, even though some are in the public domain. It’s hard to find good films that the licensing has expired on.

Bob did like “Night of the Living Dead.” He broadcast it in 1972. It was one of the most daring films he showed and had high ratings. There was a “Bob Wilkins” print, the original cut of the movie. “Remember the scene were the little girl kills her mother with the gardening tool, the trowel?” When it was first shown, there were about thirty strikes from the daughter. In repeat showings they had to tone it down a bit. They cut it down to five to ten strikes with the gardening tool.

Stanley has another humorous tale. A new programming executive at KRON had seen the ratings numbers for a showing of “Night of the Living Dead.” There were scenes in “Night of the Living Dead” that had some “accidental nudity.” They had gotten away with showing it in the middle of the night. The new executive wanted to show the movie with such high ratings in prime time, at seven o’clock on Saturday night. They had him watch the movie. He couldn’t believe they had broadcast some of the scenes. They did not show it in prime time.

Wilkins championed independent film makers in the Bay Area. He showed Ernie Fosselius’ Star Wars parody “Hardware Wars.” Many local filmmakers owed Wilkins a debt for their first exposure on TV. Wilkins promoted bizarre independent films like “The Monster from Milpitas” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”

There is another event scheduled for the room and our time is up, but no one wants to leave. We don’t want it to be over. Chairs shuffle. Stanley tells us of a tribute to Wilkins that will be held soon at Auctions by the Bay in Alameda.

It was a bit like a wake and had its sad moments, but it sure had some laughs. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had become a unique entertainer.

That was it for WonderCon 2009. I’d spent three days there and knew I had still missed a lot. There had been some escape from the economic meltdown for many fans. Maybe we need Fantasy and Superheroes now more than we ever did before.