Monday, May 30, 2016

Oakland's Creamery Studio: The Latest Casualty of Gentrification

The latest phase of draconian gentrification (that a year ago banned BBQs by Lake Merritt, for instance) can applaud itself on its latest casualty: The Creamery Studio on San Pablo Street in Oakland.  The live/work studio was given its eviction notice on May 26, 2015 (in the midst of Oakland’s toothless 90 day rent-increase moratorium) with only five (5) days to vacate and (hopefully) relocate (the Memorial Day weekend at that). The new landlord, the ironically named “Art Music Center, LLC,” cares about the art and music of this city about as much as the mayor’s “affordable housing” initiatives care about affordable housing. The future of a new location is uncertain at the very least….

At the Creamery, Greg Ashley has been producing high quality analog recordings at affordable rates for the last decade, in addition to his own amazingly prolific and eclectic output under his own name, and as “sideman” in several other ensembles. Greg’s body of work at the very least goes toe to toe (or nose to nose) with the work of the legendary 90s indie-rock band I suppose I am still most known for in music (and even poetry) circles (and as a producer and advocate of analog recording, he is as distinctive and fun to work with as Steve Albini). I've worked at more expensive (and more "state of the art") studios, and The Creamery was better than all of them. Greg provided a much-needed service to the community, and was able to eke out a living as a musician/producer in an era where that is becoming increasingly impossible (unless one is willing to relocate to LA or Nashville, and sell one’s soul to the corporate conglomerates).

I’ve always admired the fact that Greg was fiercely loyal to a local community. When he was an up-and-coming star during the garage/psych craze circa 2004—2006, and appeared on the cover of local weeklies, he could’ve done what so many do with that cache: relocate to LA, but he stayed. I also admire his forward-looking, yet down-to-earth, creative restlessness. Unlike most who operate in the commodity-driven “music biz,” Greg does not waste time looking back on his body of work; as soon as he completes one project, it’s on to the next. Yet, it’s exceedingly difficult to look forward in times like these; when you put your life, your sweat and toll in a place being taken away from you, eviction can enable what some would call an “identity crisis.”

Anyway, last night, as several of his friends and collaborators took a break from packing Greg’s equipment to sit around and listen to music for one final bittersweet “wrap party” (if it may be called a party) before doomsday, it was hard not to be haunted by the ghosts of the amazing recordings that have been produced here. Without telling us, one of Greg’s friends decided to put on some of his music. She started with “Black Rabbit” by Brian Glaze (ex-Brian Jonestown Massacre), one of the first recordings Greg made here back in 2006, on which I played piano. Regardless of my own bit part in the creation of this song, I found myself haunted by its beauty, and sunk into my “own head,” and tears began to flow. I finally got it together enough to say, “this is my favorite Brian Glaze song,” and Jess Hartlaub (who had put it on) said, “mine too.” I was surprised she even knew that song, since after releasing those albums on Birdman, Brian has largely dropped out of the scene. (link to the song:

But I thought back to those days—circa 2004-2008—when Brian was around, and I remember when he was interviewed on the, alas, too short-lived Open Source Radio Station, KYCY 1510-AM as they played this song. It was the first time I had ever heard my own playing on AM radio (as opposed to FM college radio), and I realized how Greg’s productions sound even better on AM radio than on FM radio.

Glaze’s “Black Rabbit” was one of the first songs I recorded with Greg. Between 2006 and 2011, I sessioned on many more: though I got to work with some of the more famous acts Greg brought in (King Khan, Christian Bland of The Black Angels, Kimberly Morrison of The Duchess and The Duke), I am even more proud of the work we did by lesser-known women-lead acts such as Flowers and Bulls, Babycakes and the upcoming Janaysa Bonet Lambert. Hell, we even got to record some of my own “studio experiments” that I suppose could be called “original compositions.”

Greg is a great collaborator, and would often play several instruments on the songs he recorded and produced. When he decided to record a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Lady’s Man album, I favorably contrasted his production work with Spector’s. Spector’s got his “wall of sound,” but Greg trimmed the fat and created a painted garden of sound.

Yet aside from the professional accolades and “kudos” I could make about Greg’s work (on Linked In, perhaps? It would take many more pages to do justice to in writing), I also must thank him and the Creamery Studio on a very personal level. He was always there for me. He may not even know it, but he helped me regain a sense of creative purpose during a very difficult time in my life after I had become a cripple and the (white) poetic publishing establishment had largely abandoned my work for crossing a dangerous line into anti-elitism. Greg made me feel more at home in the recording studio in ways that almost made up for the fact that I couldn’t dance anymore, and performing live with bands became more difficult. I am eternally grateful for Greg Ashley’s faith in me as a session musician and collaborator…..even if-- thanks to greedy music-hating landlords, we don’t get to record again.  

The future is uncertain….and Greg may leave us (“to liberty not banishment”—Shakespeare might say)—to return to his native Texas (“the friendliest people that I’ve ever seen” as Jerry Jeff Walker might sing). If so, it will be their gain, and hopefully they’ll treat him better than Oakland did. But whether The New Oakland knows it or not, it is our loss. Unless, of course, you believe that expensive restaurants are ushering in an arts renaissance in this town that more than makes up for the galleries, performance spaces and live/work places being driven out.

Chris Stroffolino, 5-28-16

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tebogo Motaba Poem on Stevie Wonder’s Birthday

For absolutely selfish reasons
I need to loudly proclaim
(with whatever megaphone that hasn’t yet been taken away)
the brilliance, beauty and truth
of the writing of  uPhakamile uMaDhlamini
Officially, she was my student
but I know she taught me
more than I taught her
(for instance, that sidlala emagroundini ngezinto esiithula esignangi
means “we play in the field with stuff from the dump”)
She thought she was primarily a poet when she entered this class,
But now she thinks she might be more of a story-writer
(“Screw the narrow segregation of genres,” I say, “you’re both!”)

For absolutely selfish reasons
I must find a way to convince
the editors of, say, the,
the “revised and updated” 2016 edition
of Literature: The Human Experience,
an anthology the Bedford/St. Martin’s imprint
is trying to push on college teachers throughout this land
that they need to include the writing of uPhakamile uMaDhlamini
alongside its broets, beyond the slightly expanded token corner.

For absolutely selfish reasons
She should get free tuition, with room and board,
At a M(F)A in Creative Writing
or “Non-Poetry” in the best sense of the word—
if you can accept her on her own terms
(and what good is any creative writing teacher
if s/he can’t help provide a forum
even if those who loved your apolitical/transpolitical
personal-is-the-political, show-don’t-tell work
no longer publish you)

And for absolutely selfish reasons
“I feel so unnecessary!”
in the words of Rufus Thomas (as done by Rufus Harley)
for liberation reasons
but perhaps useful as a vessel
to not get in the way of her words:
and the process of discarding the lies,
learning and unlearning “truths,” decolonizing,
liberating self against the watchful eye
of white supremacy is agonizing to say the least.”

“Poverty is humorous,” she writes,
and yes she’s very good at mordant humor.
She says better what I can merely think
Backing it up with the blood, sweat and tears,
the love, pain and laughter, of lived experience
in a plain brown 8X11 envelope with her name on it,
a fuller-range of the human experience
than what the Bedford Editors call “literature.”[1]

She cuts through the crap, the stuffy fat,
of those who say “We’re in a Post-Black Arts Movement era”
or the black actors who “failed to recognize
the importance of the platform
which should be used for the advancement of the black struggle.”
Reading her, I recall how the OAU and the OAAU
Worked together! The necessary internationalism….

For absolutely selfish reasons,
I, as colonial framing device,
Stand opposed to the ongoing colonization
Being done by whites at home and abroad
and pray for the strength to combat
the West’s cultural misappropriation
kept alive by our high levels of consumerism
which I fear I’ve been guilty of (as framing device)
and the strength not to water down, or clog up
her message and aesthetic
her work, her gift that must be shared (if she lets me)

For absolutely selfish reasons,
I ask you, oh Bedford Anthologists,
Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, and Samuel Cohen,
As well as the broets and women
Who lovingly wrestled with my work in the 90s
(if you haven’t totally tuned out by now….it’s okay, really….)
to stop “secretly” worrying about
being a traitor to your scene, your cause, and your race
if you included the work of uPhakamile uMaDhlamini

beyond your “revised and expanded” gallimaufry
of diverse synecdoches, The Immigrant Experience.
(you can still have your broets!)

For my (absolutely selfish) taste,
she does a better job of making lemonade
than some I won’t name—
And, for absolutely selfish reasons,
I’m trying to pay her back
For having stumbled on the good fortune of being an early reader
And next time I submit to an editor,
I could say, “yes, I’d really like to publish another book,
But only if you publish a book by uPhakamile uMaDhlamini first,”
And for absolutely selfish reasons,
Reading her, I am not envious of the facebook teachers
Exclaiming, “Yippee! The Semester is Over” two weeks before ours.

(Here's a link to her manifesto:

Chris Stroffolino

[1]and would inject more of that contemporary
revolutionary fervor Tim Yu brings
into those claustrophobia-inducing walls
Billy Collins has apparently conned some people into thinking are windows
(on request, I’ll send more detailed explanation, to “unpack” this reference)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How To Solve Oakland's Art Crisis: (a dialogue, to be set to music): #KeepOaklandCreative

“There is no institutional understanding that the arts are an economic engine for the city, they are not just a cynical lure to make a neighborhood pretty to attract outside investors,” Pamela Mays McDonald, Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition and External Affairs Chair for Oakland Art Murmur[1]

D: Did you know that Oakland recently received an NEA grant for the purpose of creating a cultural plan to preserve our art? I sure didn’t….

B: It’s probably a tiny bit of money, and won’t do any of us any good.

D: You’re such a cynic. But at least it shows they recognize that art has value…

B: But what do they mean by “art?” Do they mean only painters with an easel, or the arts in the broadest sense? Does it include musicians?

D: The article doesn’t say. Nor does it say if it will include poets and writers. We don’t even have a good locally based press…

B: They probably call that “culture” instead of art…

D: And they probably call musicians “entertainment” instead of art…

B: They certainly don’t consider outdoor BBQs in public parks “art”

D: But theoretically, in a democracy we can be part of the discussion. After all, they declared 14th St. The Black Arts and Business District, and the Black Arts Movement’s all about art in the widest sense of the word (including music, poetry, and activism). Certainly, that’s a good sign!

B: But that’s all it is….signage! Beneath those signs, Wood Partners and the Bay Development group (to name but two) are building condos who are diametrically opposed to the intent and work of this district.

D: You gotta admire the way that woman from Bay Development [Maria Poncel] uses language when she claimed her condo would provide a community benefit by “activating the ground floor” with high priced real retail stores. She said it will make the streets safer….

B: Would it be safer for the vendors of the black arts and business district? The young folks peaceably congregating outside the 15th St. galleries—with bass guitar, drums, dancing and a microphone to anybody who wants to try out a rap---are working to activate the ground floor, and make the neighborhood safer, and doing a good job at it until the curfew police clears them out to make room for the kind of “activation” we see at other recent non-affordable housing developments…

D: Well, at least the mayor shows up at parades with a big smile in her Art Snail!

B: She moves so slow, a snail is a greyhound by comparison. She won’t even resurrect the Oakland Arts Commission until she appoints a Cultural Affairs Manager! She offers no timeline, but says “work is underway.”

D: She’s been listening to those outside consultants from Bloomberg who are forming a working group---get this—to study Oakland’s art ecosystem!

B: They’re studying us?? Smells like colonization to me. Why doesn’t she just ask the artists, the musicians, the stand-up comics, those who need cheap and convenient culture, those with a sense of civic pride and a day to day stake in improving the city, but are thwarted?

D: Judging by City Hall’s actions, they don’t want to support arts.

B: Can it be possible that the majority of people who voted for her---her base in the Oakland hills---don’t want to support the arts, may even be afraid of the arts?

D: you rarely hear anybody boldly claiming Don’t Fund The Arts….but I know when I talk to other low-income folks who don’t see themselves as artists that, for them, funding the arts is a much lower priority than creating and sustaining affordable housing….It’s a little hard to rally the lumpen behind the cause of “art.”

B: I understand their resentment, maybe it’s not worth it to fight for “art”--for if we can take care of providing affordable housing, it will take care of providing the art.

D: Or we can convince these “non-artists” that the two issues are the same, that supporting the arts will actually create more jobs for them and more affordable housing much more than wasting tax-dollars on a Bloomberg working group, task force think tank. Besides, a lot of these “non-artists” are really artists, and have more of a stake in local art than they might think… We have to take back the word “art” from the rich!

B: So what should we do? Show up outside city hall with placards that blare: WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT NEA MONEY?

D: Why not? But if we’re visual artists, we gotta make those placards pretty, at least as pretty as graffiti, or murals from the Community Rejuvenation Project…

B: It may be more important to blanket Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with catchy memes (I hate the word memes).

D: That’s what they want us to think—that that­ has more power—to keep us more divided, but, sure, we could work that front too…

B: Maybe the poets will join us, and write a poem called “HOW ARE YOU SPENDING THE NEA MONEY?”

D: Maybe, but knowing the poetry world, it will take a few years to get published anywhere people see it….or the poem would get rejected for being too “strident.”

B: That could be where we musicians come in, put that phrase to beats. After we record it, we can get in cars and bikes and blast it around town….hold a dance party in San Antonio Park….a contest for dance songs on this theme open to any resident of Oakland (and those recently priced-out). Dance songs bring people together! All songs are welcome. Imagine the industry that will result, the activated ground floors, and streets. Recording time will be donated. Visual artists and dancers will be enlisted. This could be funded by the NEA grant!

D: That’s circular logic. You can’t promise to pay people with the money you don’t have yet.

B: The city, state, and federal government do that all the time! Okay, maybe it’s better not to worry about money yet---that always stops any innovative thinking even before it gets a chance to start….We don’t need money if we can work with those artists and activists who are already fighting for this, and other related, causes, and who have already brought some people together. We just have to convince them that we can give them something with our art if they help create contexts for it….

D: Makes sense to me. Hiroko Kurihara, from Mayor Schaaf’s Artist Affordable Housing and Workplace task force, might be someone to try to work with. I like the way she talks.

B: I didn’t even know the mayor had an Artist Affordable Housing and Workplace task force! That sounds like a joke….it gives me an idea for another song, We are the Artist Affordable Housing And Task Force,” (trying to sing it to the tune of “We are the Village Green Preservation Society”); we could create an ad hoc band named that!

D: But listen to what she says, she wants to create “a city-wide cultural district that would try to reap funding from the statewide California Arts Commission budget. That way, Oakland’s art community won’t be divided. There’s a little pot of money, and then all these competing interests end up squabbling over scraps. We can’t really do that if we’re gonna really try to coalesce, and build a cultural arts-based community.”

B: Well, it sounds better than anything coming out of the mayor’s mouth. I like her broad vision. She seems to get the spirit of “unity in diversity” I’m talking about. I like what she says about stopping “squabbling over scraps,” but it’s easier said than done.

D: Not if there’s strength in numbers, and by working together on a “city-wide level” we are able to bring more money in….from both the state and the federal governments.

B: But the city has this terrible policy of sending back funds unused….

D: Or squandering them on consultants, working groups and task forces…or not even applying for federal and states grant (like they just did with the summer youth program)

B: Apparently, the city leaders don’t even know that every empire has fallen when the bureaucratic class takes over and the creative class falls by the wayside... Anyway, Kurihara is just talking about government funding. We should be able to get money for the arts (including affordable housing for artists and non-artists who need art) from other sources…, say, Big Tech

D: Big Tech, you’ve got to be kidding!

B: Well, Pandora’s here, at the intersection of Big Tech and Music, right smack dab in the middle of Oakland, only a block away from where the great radio station KDIA used to be….

D: Pandora certainly shows no interest in cultivating and re-elevating a sustainable local music economy. Sad, because you think they’d be a natural ally, that they’d see how they’d benefit by forging strong connections with local Oakland music and art scenes to help brand a marketable, yet eclectic, Oakland cultural identity as a cultural export…

B: Maybe we should hold our demonstrations in front of their office. If you can’t fight City Hall maybe you can convince big tech. And if Pandora doesn’t come on board, maybe Uber could require its drivers play music from one of Uber’s Local music channels (the passenger could choose from a wide variety of genres)…Certainly some of these techie hipsters must like to go to art galleries, read and dance…

D: They’re probably into that Burning-Man “ecstatic dance” kind of stuff, and certainly wouldn’t be down with helping to fund Hip Hop For Change….with no strings attached…

B: Perhaps, but we can appeal to a sense of civic pride for all of Oakland, not just them. If we don’t want to squabble over scraps, we can’t let musical taste get in the way. This is what unity in diversity means. Yes, there’s this nagging civil war over the soul of Oakland, and yes they may hate our culture…

D: And we may hate theirs

B: I don’t hate it, I just don’t see it. Their culture’s like a giant eraser….made of food (and nothing but food)----but even with this culture clash, or culture crash, we could still find common ground: if nothing else, we all live here! And if we can join forces, there will be more room for both their culture and our culture. All we have to do is convince them to value what’s here more than the imported virtual culture from LA. This could be win/win, baby!

D: Of course, we’d have to convince some of our people of that too….

B: I don’t think so, we can appeal to their needs, needs that are thwarted---so many young artists who give up on their art (as at least one of the many part-time jobs they must have to survive) because they see no hope, the young who don’t yet realize that they’re shooting their dreams in the foot when they’re glued to the imported culture….

D: Those who complain about how the techies are taking over this city and driving them out, yet are dutifully enriching them by being glued to their smartphones and ipods….

B: Imported mass culture and Big Tech colonizers have such a way of seducing us from our intuitions and gifts at a young age. But I’m convinced we can help the kids have more fun creating their own art, and providing that “economic engine” that could fuel an Oakland cultural and economic renaissance, for all of Oakland.

D: Imagine, if you will, a locally-owned and operated radio station broadcasting from one of the city’s many live/work warehouse space/art gallery that also holds dance parties and organizational meetings…..this station’s programming would consist of at least 75% local programming (music, talk) with the purpose of helping to brand an Oakland cultural identity that would utilize the talent of Oakland’s currently underused creative talent “content providers” and generate revenue for the city.

B: Or at least sign the petition to Re-establish the City of Oakland Arts and Culture Commission to #KeepOaklandCreative….