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May 2002 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

St. Louis by the Bay
By Marwan Kanafani

It was Tina Kennedy. The summer's eve of our first day off from Clayton High School in June 1989. A steamy teenage love affair that lasted two months, then fizzled away in a haze of bad, Mexican-grown pot and radio pop songs. A kiss that will always remind me of St. Louis. Shirts off, outside, in Shaw Park at 10 p.m.. The cicadas screaming at the top of their lungs and the air just as still as my grandpa the day I found him. Curfew was broken. Lips were sore. And so we parted, never to return to that innocence we both found in each other, only in St. Louis.

Where she is now I can only imagine. Probably working on a solution to the Middle East crisis. Or protecting the natural habitat of Florida's eastern coast. But I know that I write songs now for her now, 14 years later, in San Francisco, California.

Fojimoto rocks Like so many other musicians, San Francisco drew me in like the Song of the Sirens. For better or for worse, my ears couldn't resist the melody and my body the natural rhythm of California time. After two years at Washington University, it was clear that I needed to change my scenery so I could have something to write about. From the moment I picked up the guitar and learned "A Day In the Life," I knew that writing songs was what I wanted to do. For a living? Didn't cross my mind. For a band? Well, after a few mediocre ensembles playing St. Louis' Landing hot spots, I thought I'd woodshed in the privacy of my own apartment. That apartment ended up being a rent-controlled two-bedroom in the post-hippie borough of Berkeley, where I've been making music ever since.

A funny thing happened shortly after I made the big move of my life. Once I came out here in the summer of 1996 with my good friend David Simon (Blank Space, Filet of Funk, the Ambassadors), I found that one by one, more St. Louis friends were re-locating to what I now considered "my town." Dan Lippincott and Brad Eller settled in Oakland. Brad plays in a drum-and-bass/two-step vocal dance act called Duo Electro, and Dan started his own label, Splintered Tree Records, and is releasing a single on Sun Burn Records as a co-production. Brian Dean, a Clayton High kid gone funk, is one of the most sought-after groove bass players in the Bay Area. He's been in several different outfits over the years and always seems to come out with a new sound to make you shake your ass. Also, one of the most talented songwriters out of the whole STL»SF bunch is Erik Olsen. He's known in New York and Los Angeles as a bass player for Don Dilego, NYC songwriter. But I've been producing Erik's debut album and his Clayton High School smurf punk days are over. His music takes from equal parts Johnny Cash and Jeff Tweedy. He's most definitely an alt-country original.

In the past six years, everyone in the San Francisco music scene asks me, "Man, I've never met so many people from St. Louis. Is everyone from that town as nice as you guys?" And my answer, honestly, is, "Yes, they are." I'd say that the level of niceness among ordinary St. Louisans far surpasses those of California descent. Now, I can say this without being spat upon by my current girlfriend (who's from Santa Cruz), and most of the rest of my circle, assuming they don't get their hands on this issue of TheCommonspace.org. But even if they did, I could defend my opinion.

See, out here, there is so much musical inspiration for me: the endless quirks and eccentricities that are made readily available on Folsom Street in San Francisco's SOMA District; the tranquility of Tilden Park and Redwood National Forest, 10 minutes away from my bedroom; the punk rock spirit of bumper stickers that read "SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM" and "IF YOU'RE NOT OUTRAGED, THEN YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION"; the legacy of Jello Biafra, Minor Threat, and DIY music. It's all here. But along with the history comes the attitude. Where St. Louis sometimes suffers from an inferiority complex, San Francisco claims to be "the coolest place on earth, with the coolest people." I've found that these cool people are hard to find. A little investigative hipster-diving through years on the local rock club circuit led me to the "hella cool cats"; hanging out in a club, smug-faced and cynical, sucking on expensive martinis, and complaining that Radiohead makes wimpy listening music. There's a feeling here that if you seem too enthusiastic, if you omit too-cheerful a vibe, then your cover is blown and off you go to the dork barracks.

Well, I've found that much like being sent down to Mr. Marx's office during my Glenridge Elementary School days, if you're gonna face the principal, then you may as well make friends with the secretaries. And eventually, they'll start bringing you cookies. These days, I'm riding the dork bus with a grin. Me and the rest of my San Francisco rock music compadres just can't be bothered longing for the simplicity of life back home while reaching for the little silver Victrola trophy to tell us we've made it in the music business. San Francisco has taught me one thing: when you're making art, you're making it.

Marwan Kanafani's current group is Fojimoto.

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