Wednesday, November 28, 2007

At the Corner of Ruin and Grace

When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I was struck by how pretty everything looks all the time, too pretty for my east coast blue collar blood. The line from "Orange Juice Blues" kept haunting me: "I'm tired of everything being beautiful, beautiful." So I went on a mission to find grit in Santa Barbara.

I couldn't find any, at least not Anglo grit. I found sleaze, both working class and upper crust, but that ain't no authentic, dare to do the right thing, unconcerned by dirty finger nails, do the hard work of the world, grit. The closest thing I could find was stylized designer grit, created from the clean pretty drafting tables of clean pretty minds, whose rebellion from stucco walls and red-tile roofs created coffee shops, bars, or restaurants where graduate students and ex-graduate students like me could drink four-dollar coffees or five-dollar beers and feel the authenticity of bared brick and ductwork, pre-distressed furniture, and the atmosphere of antique Coke bottles and old license plates. Had I moved to a new state or a new state of being?

After a year or two in town, a bit slowly, really, I discovered the venerable concert series, Sings Like Hell. Producer Peggy Jones and her hellions have succeeded in introducing grit into the dreamy prettiness of Santa Barbara far better than most, certainly far better than I. Within the beautiful, beautiful Lobero opera house, they stage some of the best musical acts in town, specializing in the graduates of--and those still enrolled in--the school of non-commercial knocks. Heavily flavored by the Austin scene, Sings Like Hell offers singer-songwriters who are more familiar with loud bars a chance to perform for a sit-down audience in an acoustically designed venue. The tag line of the series is "The best music you've never heard," and indeed the best shows not starring Richard Thompson are the ones by unknown surprises. Anyone familiar with Sings Like Hell knows all this.

A couple weekends ago, a great example of grit in paradise came to Hell. Eliza Gilkyson was born in Hollywood to folk-singing DAR cultural elite, but she must have used her silverish spoon to feed on large doses of unrefined life. Her songs celebrate a scar-studded, mistake-wizened, regret-free history of seeking truth, heat, and marrow from the acid Sixties through the current era of consumerist delusions. Tall, thin, and still attractively hip, she wears a guitar as naturally as any grizzled rocker. Her voice reaches the ache of longing as readily as it belts Bush-bashing blues. ("I'm from Texas," she said in the intro to 'Man of God,' "and we're still missing our village idiot.")

The grittiest thing about her is that she keeps improving as a songwriter and performer even as she pushes 60. Five or six years ago she warmed up the audience in Hell, a performance memorable mostly for her stand-up comedy between likable songs. A headliner this time, Gilkyson's hit her confident stride. She regaled us plenty with her wit, but settled in the second half of her set into moving us with her artistry, her songwriting, her lyrics. I was especially impressed by glimpses of what I think are unreleased songs, including the great line for locating grit, at "the corner of ruin and grace."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Candidate of Choice

Dale Francisco ran for Santa Barbara City Council as a pro-choice candidate; that is, he wants public policy to support private transportation. In short, he's a car guy, and he doesn't want Santa Barbara in the business of encouraging people to walk, bike, or ride public transit. People have chosen cars, he reasons, and government should respect that choice. Now that Francisco has beaten the odds and Brian Barnwell for a seat on the City Council, I'm compelled to make a few common-sense points to help ensure that his argument to support cars in the 21st century doesn't gain traction in Santa Barbara public policy.

First, people's personal choices are defined by public choices. Calling the choice to own and drive a car simply a matter of "personal" choice ignores the public choice to invest enormous resources in roads and parking and suburban sprawl. The infrastructure is set up for cars. That I and nearly every adult in Santa Barbara chooses to own and drive a car is possible only because of tax-supported infrastructure. How many of us would invest tens of thousands of dollars in personal transportation if roads were unpaved and parking non-existent? How many would choose public transportation if enough money were invested in it to make it more convenient than cars?

Second, the public choice to invest in personal transportation has never been a simple matter of democracy in action, never a simple reflection of Americans love affair with the automobile. Powerful corporations with vast sums of money at stake, notably General Motors, pursued calculated policies to cripple public transportation, eliminate competition, and leave people with no other option but to purchase a car. Los Angeles is probably the most tragic result of this effort. Blessed in the first half of the twentieth century with the largest streetcar system in the world, boasting a per capita ridership exceeding current-day San Francisco and New York, LA now famously suffers from the horrors of auto-dystopia: asphalt jungles, traffic nightmares, vacant downtown, smog, endless commutes--and on and on.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the choice to invest public money in personal transportation, which may have made some sense in the first half of the twentieth century, makes no sense today. The Average Man has pointed out to Dale Francisco the green reasons for public transportation, which I think are obvious and I fully support. I'd also like to point to the, dare I say, emotional benefits of public transportation. For sure, cars can be fun and, perhaps more so than any other commodity, bring real pleasure. But maybe getting out of our cars and interacting with our neighbors is even more fun. As Francisco himself has said, "I originally came to Santa Barbara partly because this is one of the world's best places for biking and hiking, and because it has a walkable downtown. If I never had to drive a car, I'd be delighted." Well, then, why not support public policy that fosters the choice for such car-less joy?

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