Roo and I had a holiday in San Francisco in 2001. For both of us this was our first time in the USA. It was very enjoyable but we could have done things a bit better. We changed planes in Newark on both the outward and return journeys which meant two 8 hour flights which was knackering. We didn’t hire a car because we were apprehensive about driving in the States. On subsequent holidays we made good use of a car but on this holiday we were reliant on public transport. This also meant that we only had one day out of the city on a coach tour south to Monterey and Carmel.
On the first evening, July 27th, we had tickets to see Lucinda Williams in the Warfield Theater in Market Street. She was excellent but we were both very tired from the journey and so we left before the encores. Waiting for the bus back to Russian Hill, we were accosted by a homeless man with mental health problems. There was nobody else around. It was our first day in the States and I assumed we were going to be stabbed to death. We weren’t but it was a spooky moment. For the next 2 weeks, we wandered around San Francisco and had a memorable walk from Pier 39 to The Golden Gate Bridge which looked like a short distance but in fact took nearly 2 hours because we had misread the scale on the map. This was memorable because it was on this walk that Roo first noticed signs of MS. We got a bus back but as we stopped outside Amoeba Record shop we decided to get off and found that Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were playing a set inside the shop.
All the other times I went to San Francisco were at the end of cross country trips with Pete. In 2015 I got the BART from Clayton into Market Street and explored by myself. This included a boat trip round the bay, circling Alcatraz. In 2019 Pete and I went together and met a friend of his who had just bought a house in the city for $2.4 million. Pete had spent a year in Clayton, a suburb of San Francisco, in 1998-99 as part of a teacher exchange. I can see why it was decided to pair up teachers from Brighton and San Francisco. Both cities are very cosmopolitan, forward thinking and vibrant. Walking round San Francisco is a delight. I’m looking forward to doing it again.
In 1969, a Mohawk Native American activist called Richard Oakes organised an occupation of Alcatraz that lasted 19 months. Alcatraz Island is in San Francisco Bay and between 1934 and 1963 it was the home to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary from which it is claimed that no prisoner ever escaped. The occupation was in order to protest at the treatment of Native Americans. Most people have heard of the film “Escape From Alcatraz” but of more interest may be the 40 minute documentary about this occupation which was made in 2015. Here is a trailer for the film.
Chris Porterfield is a musician who used to play in the group DeYarmond Edison with Bon Iver. Since 2012 he has been the leader of a group called Field Report, which is an anagram of Porterfield. Field Report from Milwaukee should not be confused with the rock group from Sunderland called Field Music. Field Report have released 4 records: “Field Report”, “Marigolden”, “Summertime Songs” and “Brake Light Red Tide”. The latter has only been released in the last month. They are all excellent. Wikipedia defines them as “Folk” but that’s nonsense. You don’t have drums and keyboards in a folk group. They are clearly “folk-rock”. Oh dear – the vagaries of genre classifications. Anyway, the songs are low key but well arranged. Chris Porterfield’s vocals are sometimes a little shaky but that’s part of his appeal.
On the first Field Report record there is a fantastic song called “Taking Alcatraz”. The lyrics start with Richard Oakes phoning up the singer and asking him to take part in the occupation. He agrees to go but later changes his mind. He feels guilty about not supporting the occupation and turns his feelings of regret into anger at Richard Oakes. The song ends with the poignant lines “A line in the sand don’t matter If you don’t care. A bird in the hand is worthless if you’re too scared.”
Although Chris Porterfield has had no direct experience of this occupation, he is a deep thinker about the craft of songwriting. Here is what he said about this song: “In order to have any license to put a character into a situation, you have to be able to reference your own experience too to make that authentic. What I’ve experienced and a lot of people have, is being forced to reckon with decisions they’ve made.” Brilliant.
This is not the only magnificent song on the record. “I Am Not Waiting Anymore” concerns someone who has spent his time ruminating on his state of mind and deciding to make radical changes to his life. “I’ve been a keen eyed observer of the movements of concentric parts of bodies of bones and breasts and unmapped chambers of hearts. Sand in hand has turned to glass. A jeroboam filled with a life that’s passed. Toss it off the balcony and listen for the crash. I am not waiting anymore.”
Another highlight is “Fergus Falls”. As opening lines on a record go, I think it’s pretty hard to surpass “This is the one in which I miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” The song is about a woman that Chris Porterfield spotted two years ago at a music festival. “I saw a girl who was pregnant, and she was with a guy who looked like an asshole,” he said. “She looked like she wanted to get out of there. The song was written from her perspective.”
Milwaukee and San Francisco are 2000 miles apart.