Fountains of Wayne at the Great American Music Hall, 7/19

Fountains of Wayne was exhausted, its effects pedals weren’t working, and the crowd was only half full at the Great American Music Hall last Thursday night. But for some reason, despite the band’s jet lag and the shortcomings of its borrowed equipment, the show sounded good. In fact, it sounded fantastic.

The smallish crowd had the excited energy of a sold out show. The audience sang/shouted along to every word of every song the band played from their massive catalog, even the newest additions. Though the audience varied greatly in age–most were going gray, but the boys in front of me didn’t have two armpit hairs to rub together–they were unified by their enthusiasm and apparent passion for a great pop hook.  “Thank you for not going to see Ray Davies at the Fillmore tonight,” joked bassist Adam Schlesinger. “He’s very talented.”


Fountains of Wayne have been churning out catchy riffs and hilariously poignant lyrics for 16 years. Despite a somewhat confusing Grammy win (the band won best new artist in 2007, seven years into its career) and the international popularity of MILF-honoring single “Stacey’s Mom” Fountains of Wayne never managed to break through to mainstream success.

Apparently undaunted by this continued obscurity, the band has managed to avoid a painful fadeout a la Spinal Tap. After so many years together, the band members don’t seem to carry any tension and they exude an air of casual confidence on stage.

Fountains of Wayne’s tight songwriting and humble persistence has earned it a devoted core of fans, from people who have been listening to them from their first album to tweens who were born after the band was started.

And there we stood, beers in hand on a weeknight. Everywhere I looked people were smiling, hugging, dancing, laughing. Before the band had even come onstage, onlookers were singing along with the instrumental introduction to the first song, and they didn’t quiet down until after the house lights came on.

Originally Published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:


Everyone is Listening


“It’s about writing. We should start the interview with that.” Todd Tholke leans forward across the greasy café table. “The whole reason I came all the way over here today to meet with you is to tell you about this thing that we do that has to do with free speech.”

Tholke emcees open mics, which is something he’s been doing in San Francisco for over 15 years to showcase the works of local artists in a free venue. At present, Tholke is hosting acoustic nights every Thursday at Sacred Grounds Café, which lies just north of the Panhandle. One of the city’s oldest coffee shops, Sacred Grounds has been hosting musicians almost every week since 1967. This pioneering open mic has a legacy that boasts artists such as Joan Baez and Tracey Chapman.

Tholke has been emceeing this event, which he refers to as the Songwriters’ Guild, for eight years, but he has no interest in discussing the event’s venerable past. He lays his ring-laden hands on the table. “I’m a person that’s into the present and the future,” he says with a smile.

In addition to his extensive history in the SF open mic scene, Todd works as a street musician on Haight. “I work on the docks and I’ve been living aboard my sailboat for fifteen years” says Tholke. “That’s how I supplement my lifestyle as a songwriter and musician in San Francisco. I live on a boat.”

As a known musician and vibrant personality in Upper Haight, Tholke was asked to emcee his first open mic at the now-defunct Coffee Zone. “The way that you become the host is by being asked to do it. I’ve been asked to do it at many different venues in Haight-Ashbury that I’ve been haunting for 25 years.” Tholke’s devotion to the district is emblazoned on his necklace, a metal disc that bears the image of the Haight and Ashbury street signs.

Though he doesn’t get paid to host the Songwriters’ Guild at Sacred Grounds, Tholke has been here once a week for nearly a decade because he believes that what happens there on Thursday night is important. “There’s an element of magic,” he says, “an element of the unknown and of possibility.”

He runs a tight ship in which no acts are favored, no one is barred, and politeness is key. “Sometimes people will come up and they’ll be vulgar or rude,” Tholke explains. “We have something called clapping someone offstage. We’ll politely clap you right off the stage, and if you don’t get it we’ll give you a standing ovation.”

Unlike most open mics in the city, Sacred Grounds has no PA system. The unplugged aspect of the event forces people be to be quiet and listen, otherwise their chatter would drown out the musician in the small café. “Everyone here is listening. At the end of the night there’s a camaraderie of people that don’t know each other. They shared two things: they shared their music and they shared the respect,” Tholke says. “At other open mics, everyone is like, ‘blah blah blah I don’t care who else plays and by the time I leave I’m going to be drunk.’” Tholke, makes sure that the experience at Sacred Grounds is different.

“People come from all walks of life and it doesn’t matter how old you are, what your gender is, none of those things matter. All that matters is that you have your name on the list.”


When I slip in to Sacred Grounds one a Thursday night mid-June, a man named Rainbow is just finishing his set. I count only 12 other people in the room, but it doesn’t feel like a small crowd with the dark paneling and low ceiling in the café.

Like the first time I met him, Todd is dressed in all black. This time his long hair is tied up under a beret. In between performers, he whispers to me, “You came on a really good night.”

After Rainbow, the next performer opens his set by asking the audience, “Anybody think they’re on Obama’s kill list?” Despite the eccentricities and extreme left slant of most of the performers, the music is simple, never offensive, and some is extremely beautiful. Featured musicians Maria Quiles and Rory Cloud play Nickel Creek-inspired folk lullabies that leave the Songwriters’ Guild literally begging for more. The audience is incredibly involved and tight-knit, addressing one another by name, borrowing instruments, and asking each other how they can buy their music and when their next gigs are.

As Quiles and Cloud leave the stage (more like a designated corner), Quiles calls out, “we met at an open mic! It could happen to you!” She smiles, “Maybe it already has.”

Reservations & Revelations

After eight years at Sacred Grounds, Tholke isn’t sure he can keep it up. “Every single week I think it’s gonna be the last one and every single week I’m glad that I didn’t quit that week,” he says.  Tholke was paid to host open mics in San Francisco for many years, but the gig at Sacred Grounds is an act of charity. “My win is them winning, but I feel like a loser because I am poor,” says Tholke.  “I’m the most poor person I know. I don’t know anyone that has less than me because I’m not on any programs.”

Despite his reservations, Tholke keeps coming back every Thursday. The open mic got shut down in 2007 because of the musicians’ use of copyrighted materials, but Tholke brought it back. He struggles with the time commitment, but ultimately he loves the Songwriters’ Guild. Tholke values very little above free speech, and the fact that the open mic is available to everyone for free is something that he thinks is immensely important for San Francisco’s culture.

“Free speech and freedom and liberty. You can actually have it,” says Tholke, sipping his coffee. “That’s the thing that keeps me coming back.”

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

Patrick Watson Review

The Great American Music Hall was at about half capacity for Patrick Watson’s Sunday night performance, but what the audience lacked in numbers they made up in energy. Before the Montreal-based singer even walked onto the stage, there was a buzz of excitement in the small crowd.

At first, the eagerness of the audience seemed at odds with the band’s quiet, dreamy folk songs. But with every song it played, the band picked up energy and volume, at times building from its lullaby-like melodies into cymbal crashing jam sessions with backing gang vocals reminiscent of Arcade Fire.

The beginning of the set focused on Watson’s airy vocals paired with simple piano riffs. As the night continued, the songs became more and more eclectic, oscillating between genres too fast to even identify the Latin roots of one chorus before they had already played a bluesy bridge into a folk refrain.

Even more varied than the band’s influences was the multitude of instruments used in each song. Odd-looking percussion tools were scattered around the stage. The drummer played not just the standard drum kit, but also many obscure and homemade instruments that I simply could not identify. He held a bow to nearly anything that could have noise conjured out of it, including a saw and, at one point, what appeared to be a soccer trophy.

Watson interspersed the patchwork of tunes with anecdotes relating to the origins of the songs, most pertaining to transient adventures or quiet, bucolic moments. His tone with the audience was charmingly conversational. At points he upheld dialogues with fans that shouted out to him, telling stories about his two children and his small house in Quebec.

Much of the band’s charm lies in the air of camaraderie that hangs heavily around them. A self-described “big traveling family” Patrick Watson and his band radiate affection for each other and for their music. Even in the moments that the style-switches were not seamless and the energy dipped, the sincerity of Watson’s smile outshone it all.

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

Day Seven: Under the Bridge

This morning we got up early to go on a walking tour of some tourist sites in Lima. Two former street kids, Ruben and Lucera, walked us around the famous sites and described the city from their own experiences. In beautiful plazas, they showed us where hundreds of children used to sleep at the end of the war, the fountains they used as their bathrooms, and the places that their friends were shot and beaten by Fujimori’s soldiers.

Cleya, the social worker for Generacion, was involved with another non-profit at the time. She was already working with and protecting the street children. They were throwing a birthday party for one of the kids in the center of the plaza when a van with tinted windows pulled up and men with guns poured out. Cleya and the children carried one young boy who was shot to the hospital. When the doctor saw the scars on the boy’s arms, which were indicative of living on the street at the time, they refused to treat him. He died that night. When Cleya spoke out about the boy’s death, the non-profit she represented denied working with her.

It was about this time that Generacion was started by Lucy Borjas, who let about 400 homeless children sleep in her office before establishing their first safehouse. Lucera, who was one of our guides, has Lucy B. tattooed on her bicep.

On the bus, Ruben told us that he wanted to share he and Lucera’s story. He told us that when he was 17 and she was 14, they left Generacion without asking to go to a party. On the way back home, at eight in the morning, they realized that they had no money for a cab or for food. They decided to steal a woman’s wallet. It only had two soles in it, and they were soon apprehended by the police. They told the officers that they were from Generacion, and they were arrested. The policemen have a grudge against Generacion for supporting what they see as a worthless and criminal community. Ruben and Lucera were kept in prison for a year. Lucera was kept in a small hole in the ground. Ruben was made to eat alone facing the wall because of his sexual orientation.

One of the boys in the jail began flirting with Ruben, and eventually he responded. When the police found a hickey on the other boy, they brought them outside and beat them both severely as they did pushups and forced them to eat dirt. Then they instructed the other boy to dig a hole and bury Ruben. Ruben was buried alive for five minutes. When he was dug up, they forced him to do the same to the other boy. Ruben told his mother about the incident, but they didn’t press charges because they didn’t want him to be kept in prison any longer.

When Ruben had finished his story, we had arrived at the bridge. The incredibly polluted Lima River is an opaque brown, dotted with trash. On top of the bridge, we were introduced to all the people who live underneath. We were introduced to two families who play music on the street to survive. We were told that one of the men before us had tried to commit suicide earlier that week by jumping off the bridge, but his friends pulled him out of the water. He smiled politely at us with his son on his lap as this information was relayed.

After the introductions, we walked over the piles of trash to the river below, hurrying under the bridge since pedestrians throw their trash off the sides without checking who is standing beneath them. We saw a soggy mattress tucked up right underneath the road. They told us that they used to have couches, but the police burned them. One man pointed to the brown water and said that this was their shower and where they wash their clothes. Up the river we could see other families living at the water’s edge. As we climbed back out, glue bags were underfoot with every step.

Back at the street level, the men played two songs for us and then we said goodbye, leaving them with juice boxes and crackers. I felt dirty as we drove away to go to a lunch buffet.

In the evening we met up with Lucy and a large mixture of Generacion kids for a sort of final send-off. Three members of the surfing tribe and many people whose house we visited met us at the Parque de la Reserva. The park is incredible, filled with enormous fountains of different shapes and colors. Many of them are interactive, and we spent the night running in and out of jets of water with the children. When we left each other, drenched and euphoric, I was sad to see them go.

I have come to know so many of the kids by name. I know intimate details of their lives that I don’t know about many of my friends back home. As we hugged goodbye, I felt that I was walking away from something very important and invaluable. These people were no longer the nameless poor–they have been our companions for a week. Some are my friends.

As we left, the pimp Teresa grabbed my arm and said to me in Spanish, “Tell all of your friends about Peru. Tell them how beautiful it is.”

Day Six: Poverty

Peru is not a giving country. It is not part of the culture to donate time, money, or even empathy to those who have not. The average income for a Peruvian is $10,000 soles, but it’s not exactly distributed that way. On our walk yesterday we went through Santa Maria, a wealthy town with landscaped lawns to overlook the yachts tethered in the harbor. The rest of the towns we’ve seen are as brown as the desert hills they are densely built into, with walls of brick and plywood and roofs of corrugated metal. At the top of the hills are the poorest of the poor, living without electricity or plumbing in cave-like conditions with entire families living in a single room. It is these kinds of towns that the street children in Lima have run away from due to poverty, drugs, and the violent home lives that are common here.

For the first 3/4 of today, we visited some of the few philanthropic organizations in Peru. We began at a tiny Jesuit university that has about 300 students. One of the girls from the Surfing Tribe will be studying law there starting on Monday. She came with us on the visit.

The next stop was to see one of the schools created by Fe y Alegria, which translates to Faith and Joy. This organization builds public schools in the poorest communities and trains their own teachers to work there. Normal Peruvian schools are notorious for their harsh conditions and bad educations. Teaching is not considered a respectable job in Peru, and those who choose the profession are considered failures in other trades. Teachers in these schools still use physical punishment and view the classroom setting as something for themselves instead of the children. Fe y Alegria trains their own teachers to run the schools. Here the kids are treated with love and taught by experts who often also teach in expensive private schools.

After stopping here, we stopped at several children’s community centers in the hills outside Lima. We were instructed to leave all of our watches and cameras in the bus because of the neighborhood’s tough reputation. We walked through stinking alleyways squeezed between the stacked houses to get to these tiny centers, where children work on art projects and homework to keep them off the streets. Many small children in these areas who do not take advantage of or have access to these programs stay locked in their one-room houses all day while their parents work. After visiting two children’s centers and the church that sponsors them, we were taken to downtown Lima.

Throughout this trip we have met many children. We have played with them, laughed with them, surfed with them, and gotten to know them by name. We have been told by the people who know them that these girls are pimps and prostitutes, and all are drug addicts, but this information, while shocking, is easy to forget when you’re all hanging out on the beach.

Today, as the sun went down, we entered downtown Lima, where we went to one of the houses that the street children live in. It used to be two stories with 160 people living there, three or four to a room, before there was a fire two years ago. Now the space has been filled by plywood cubicles just big enough to hold a bed. The entire space, about the size of a small basketball court, houses 40 people. We brought the people who live there snacks and sweets and they welcomed us into their home. I was shocked to see faces I knew in this place.

The house smelled like feces, and the people, when they drew near to kiss us hello, smelled sharply of the glue they had been sniffing. One child, no older than six, stood in bare feet on top of one of the small plastic bags filled with dried glue that lie discarded around the house and streets outside. The house was grossly overpopulated, and many of the women are pregnant. Of the forty that live there, two are male, and they are transgendered prostitutes, not fathers of any of the ten children.

As I stood in their roofless living room, I was struck by how hopeless this cycle is. For the first time, I really comprehended  that these are prostitutes raising prostitutes. These girls will begin sniffing glue before their breasts begin to develop. They will begin selling their bodies before they are twelve. They will exploit, be exploited, steal, sniff, fight. And by the time they are sixteen or seventeen, they will have their own children. The process repeats.

As we left the house, Miriam, the woman in charge, thanked us profusely for coming, and begged us to come back as soon as possible. My house is your house, she said. And they all smiled as they saw us off. As we walked out, Paul pointed out to me, through the open roof, that overlooking the shanty is the Superior Court of Justice.

We walked through the streets, watching Taxi drivers pick up the young girls and drive them away. One of the women walking with us tells us that for each client, a girl gets 20 soles–about $13. They work all night. We went to the area where the street musicians board the buses to busque for money, and we watched the cops harass and search a few of them. We asked Cleya, the Generacion’s social worker, who works with the kids in these streets every day if she is ever frightened of the pimps and drug dealers that she is interrupting. She says the only people she is afraid of are the police.

We waited for our van to pick us up on a corner packed with young prostitutes half my height. They all know Cleya and they rush to see her when we walk up to the curb. One young man greets each of us three times. He has glue all over the front of his shirt and is still holding the bag in his hand. As we drive away, the girls wave goodbye, and we see our friend La China walking down to the corner to join the girls. She is seventeen, pregnant with twins, and has a fresh bruise on the side of her face.

Very rarely have I been aware of a pivotal moment in my life. But I know with certainty that I will never be the same after today. I saw, smelled, and heard things that I have no context for in my own life. I was scared and I resented myself for being scared. I felt grateful that these people are willing to share their homes and their stories with a group of privileged Americans. I felt lost and angry.

I also feel extreme appreciation for the work that these organizations do in Lima. Everyone we’ve visited targets children raised in unfair and brutal situations, trying to break the cycle. Generacion has been working for 25 years. Some of the Jesuits we met have been working here for 40 years. For several decades they have been working with this community, witnessing tragedy after tragedy, all in the same pattern, and they haven’t given up. These people have given everything they have to the betterment of a small and seemingly unimportant population. They are an unbelievable inspiration.

When I return to the states, I hope this feeling of change stays with me. I never want to forget the bruise on La China’s face of the way the smell of glue makes my skin crawl. I want to appreciate every little thing that is given to me without repercussion or exploitation. I want to stop judging. People are not born homeless. They are not born violent. They are molded by elements out of their control. I want to go home and face people who are different, or even those who scare me, not with disdain and apprehension, but with tenderness.

Day Five: The Surfing Tribe

To preface this entry, I’d like to express how exhausted I am. Though today’s activity’s were not emotionally draining like the other events this week, today felt impossibly long.

We had an early breakfast before we walked down to the house of the Surfing Tribe in San Bartolo. The house is one of Generacion’s illegal shelters. It’s registered as a community center, but it serves as a home for 18 kids, many of whom have grown up there.

When the kids were moved to the house, they were given a few surfboards since they would now be living just a couple of blocks from the ocean. With nothing but time on their hands, they took to the sport quickly. They are now some of the best surfers in Peru, and several of them are sponsored. Almost more amazingly, they are almost all in school and a few are heading to college.

At the house, we all introduced ourselves and then the Tribe played a few songs for us. After a small meal, the Tribe explained their fight for children’s rights to work. They explained that if kids are not allowed to sell pens and play music on the streets, they will turn back to stealing or prostitution, easy and lucrative businesses. The establishment of this right is one of the main focuses for this group of kids. After our talk, we headed down to the beach for some surfing lessons. The boys were very patient with us, considering that I don’t have enough upper body strength to do a single push up, and our Spanish vocabularies don’t extend to water sports. I didn’t manage to get up on the board, to my dismay.

We went back to the house for lunch, and then the boys in charge of the tribe said that they wanted to take us for a hike. In a group of about twenty people ranging in age from 6 to 21 years old, we walked and played for several hours, visiting three different coastal towns.

The dynamic of the group is fascinating. I found myself thinking of them as the real-life Lost Boys. There are only a few girls in the group. The Surfing Tribe is both male-dominated and kid-dominated. Incredibly, they are a well-functioning clan of self-governing orphans. Most seem to be immature for their age, but they clearly care about each other, and the mere fact that the Tribe functions at all is a testament to these children’s resilience and drive.

We will all be sad to leave the Surfing Tribe. As we walked away after a nighttime soccer game, the smallest children ran after us, asking when they will see us again. I wanted to say soon. The children here are an incredible success story. It is such a relief to finish a day here in good spirits. I can’t be sure that the children understand how fortunate they are, despite the circumstances that brought them to Generacion, but I think that they are grateful. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be so caring towards each other and so dedicated to the fight for children’s rights. Today, though exhausting, was a very inspiring day.

Day Four: El Ojo Que Llora

Today was a big day. First we hopped on the bus to go to Pachacamac, a pre-Incan ruin site. In the ancient city there are visible ruins from four different civilizations from 300 AD to the Inca in 1400 AD. Due to underfunding, only a small number of the temples and houses have been excavated, and most of the temples have been looted. A large portion of the tour consisted of our guide pointing to large mounds of sand and describing what lies underneath, waiting to be dug up.

After we left Pachacamac, we went to the national museum to see the exhibit focused on Peru’s two-decade civil war. After the war, the Committee for Truth and Reconciliation announced that 69,000 Peruvians had been killed in the struggle. Since this number was published, several more mass graves have been found. The number is probably closer to 75,000. Thousands more were arrested by the government never to be seen again. These are the desaparecidos–the disappeared.

I was strongly impacted by the exhibit. The hundreds of photos that adorned the walls were both incredible and horrendous. Rarely does an image capture the depth of emotion in the actual situation. These pictures displayed such dismay and desperation that I was left speechless, uneasy, and restless by the sheer force of the captured moment.

Many photos inhabit my field of vision when I look back on the day. One of the most prominent is a photo of Abimael Guzman, the leader of Shining Path, the terrorist group that began the war. In the image he is raising his fist triumphantly and defiantly beside the corpse of a comrade.

This is the image of a madman, excited by blood and invigorated by the contagious effects of his black charisma. Looking at it, I was shaken. Shaken and ashamed that I had never even heard of the atrocities that had been committed in Peru within my lifetime. This devastating effect of the Cold War is not even broached in our schools.

We left the museum in silence. When we boarded the bus, the driver was listening to “American Idiot”.

The next stop of our trip was the monument El Ojo Que Llora–The Eye that Cries. The memorial is a labyrinth, representing the confusion and misrepresentation of our paths in life. Each stone in the labyrinth bears the name of a victim of the war and the year that they died. At the center is a stone fountain with the abstract of a face. Water courses from the eye.

In 2007, fifteen supporters of the ex-president and mass-murderer Fujimori came to the memorial with guns, sledge hammers and buckets of orange paint. Upset that the monument memorializes terrorists along with civilian victims, the fifteen destroyed the monument. Orange paint, the color of Fujimori, is still visible in the rock.

A friend of Generacion explained the significance of the monument. It is a tool of remembrance, of learning, and it is a sacred ground for families to pay respect to their loved ones whose bodies were never found. After she explained to us the importance of continuing the foundation of human rights and remembering that no group in Peru was innocent of human rights violations during this period, she handed out white flowers and told us to go find a name that we connected with. I placed my flower on two adjacent stones bearing the names of two siblings, ages 3 and 7.

After we left El Ojo, we visited the headquarters of Generacion. The beautiful old house used to be a home for just under 100 street kids. It was located in a poor area, and the organization employed most of the neighbors. But the neighborhood eventually turned their economic situation around and began to complain of the presence of street children. The church down the block sided with the new neighbors, since these children, famous for their drug addiction and prostitution, are incredibly stigmatized in Lima.

In 2006, police declared the house illegal and raided Generacion, smashing the lights, the toilets, and nearly everything else that made it possible for the kids to live there. Generacion kept offices in the building, but had to close their doors to the children. Most were put back onto the streets. The smallest, who would have died, were moved to Lucy’s house, where they lived for the rest of their childhood. One of these children, Marisol, has just been accepted to a Jesuit university in Lima, where she will begin classes in the fall.

The kids in my group left Generacion energized and full of ideas for fundraising and donating to the cause. I was not feeling as hopeful as most of my friends. The problems of the street children seem impossibly daunting. The church refuses to help–they won’t even allow the kids to be baptized. The government will not help because Generacion criticizes their work. Peruvian culture is not one of giving or helping, despite their strong religious sector. Most devastating is perhaps the fact that almost all of the men who pay these young girls for sex are either taxi drivers or policemen.

It seems as if the entire society is poisoned. What was once a culturally rich and forward thinking country for a thousand years AD, as proven by the amazing architectural and engineering feats we saw this morning at Pachacamac, is now stagnant, resentful, and prejudiced. After twenty years of civil war and utter devastation that left no citizen unaffected, there is still rampant hatred amongst social groups and an unwillingness to help each other.

I am willing to help. I want to help. I am desperate to help.

I think what Generacion does is an inspiration. They stay positive in a world of negative. They push through periods without funding, periods when the government is breathing down their necks and newspapers accuse them of helping criminals. I have a lot to learn from them. I just hope I also have something to give.