Friday, May 15, 2009
This is the obituary I wrote for the Marin Independent Journal. Carl was more than a figure in the community to me. He was someone I looked up to. I knew him since my daughters were growing up and even more recently as a friend and artist at my wife's gallery, the Donna Seager Gallery. To Carl, everyone was family. He was a compassionate man and I'll miss him.
Carl Dern, a renowned sculptor and prominent member of the Marin art community, died Monday of complications from interstitial lung disease at the University of California at San Francisco, Medical Center.
Mr. Dern, a longtime resident of Fairfax, was 73.
In his distinguished career, Mr. Dern's art was exhibited widely in the Bay Area and beyond, including the Fresno Art Museum, the Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
He was a participating artist in 2004's "Hearts in San Francisco" citywide exhibition, creating a bright green heart he called "San Francisco Love Apple."
Mr. Dern was best known for his whimsical chairs, ladders and trees fashioned in steel, bronze and copper, sometimes seen as metaphors for the human figure. His work was lauded in an exhibition art catalog for "its elegant imbalance and noble incongruity."
Ceramist Richard Shaw of Fairfax, a fellow artist and friend, described Mr. Dern as "a tough, hard-working, sensitive guy." He compared his art to that of Alexander Calder, famed for his metal mobiles.
"Carl's pieces looked like they were moving when they weren't," Shaw said. "He gave that feeling of motion.
Also accomplished at drawing, Mr. Dern often worked with his wife, Marie, a book artist and founder of Jungle Garden Press in Fairfax.
"He was curious, inventive and compassionate," she said.
They most recently collaborated with U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan on "The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed," a collection of Ryan's poems that Mr. Dern illustrated with his light-hearted drawings.
Mr. Dern also worked in the field of applied arts, most notably creating unique steel and bronze furniture and artistic chandeliers.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 24, 1936, into a family of miners, cowboys and politicians, Mr. Dern moved to San Francisco in 1960 and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and a master's of fine arts degree in sculpture from UC Berkeley.
He won the prestigious Anne Bremer Prize in Art in 1969 and 1972. In 1970, he co-founded the New Museum of Modern Art in Oakland.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Dern built Fairfax Square, a two-story commercial building at 82 Bolinas Road. He and his wife, Marie, worked in their studio on nearby Park Road in Fairfax.
A deeply spiritual man, Mr. Dern was a member of the Zen Buddhist community and had been studying to be a Buddhist priest and teacher under the noted Buddhist leader Ed Brown, a personal friend.
In addition his wife, he is survived by daughters Amy Christensen of Cotati and Daisy Dern of Nashville, Tenn.; sons Fritz Dern of Fairfax and James Dern of Santa Rosa; and five grandchildren.
Memorial contributions may be made to the San Francisco Zen Center, any favorite charity or toward the purchase of a piece of art by a local artist.
A memorial service will be in July in Stinson Beach.
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
And the 20,000 Deadheads who sold out the Shoreline Amphitheater Sunday night for the band's homecoming show couldn't be happier about it.
The Shoreline concert, the first of two at the airy Mountain View venue, came at the end of the Dead's first national tour in five years.
"It's everything I could have hoped for," said 49-year-old Scott Bucey of Corte Madera, a member of the Marin Symphony board and a Deadhead since 1978. "It brings us back to where we were before Jerry died in 1995. I only wish that they had done this sooner."
Wearing a tie-dye T-shirt, Bucey was at the concert with his wife, Jennifer.
"The people in the audience are saying, 'This is it, finally,'" she said. "'It's taken 14 years, but this is it.'"
After they lost Garcia, the Grateful Dead's lead guitarist and charismatic paterfamilias, the four other founding members - guitarist-singer Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann - feuded over business and personal issues. The only thing they seemed to agree on was dropping "Grateful" from their name in honor of their fallen bandmate.
That's why this 20-plus-concert reunion tour has become such a milestone in the 40-year history of the Marin-based band.
And even in the worst economy since the Great Depression, the Dead remain a highly attractive touring act, playing
Mickey Hart certainly was, standing backstage before the show with a lit cigar in one hand and a drumstick in the other.
"We really found each other on this tour," he said with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm. "We're renewing our friendship. We're starting to become a group again."
The man who has promised to reunite the country, President Barack Obama, also did his part in reuniting the Dead.
They came together for the first time at a Warfield fundraiser for Obama the night before the California primary. And a huge Obama benefit concert in Pennsylvania last year sealed the deal for this tour.
The president was so grateful for their support that he invited them to visit him in the Oval Office when the band played in Washington D.C.
Rolling Stone magazine ran a photo of him and the band under the headline "Deadhead in Chief."
And it turns out that several members of the president's staff, including senior advisers Pete Rouse and David Axelrod, are Dead fans. With other West Wingers,
That same night Hart invited Tipper Gore, a longtime friend, to sit in on drums on "Sugar Magnolia."
At Shoreline, the Dead started 45 minutes late, waiting for the jubilant crowd to file in from the vast parking lots, and played past the amphitheater's 11:30 p.m. curfew. Bolstered by lead guitarist Warren Haynes of the Allman Bros. Band and Government Mule, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti from Weir's band Ratdog, the Dead played classics like "Sugaree," "Sugar Magnolia" and, to close the first set, an operatic rendition of "Uncle John's Band" with pipe organ harmonies.
The packed house seemed to move with the music like one giant undulating organism at a pot party. Balloons and beach balls floated above the crowd and occasionally bounced onto the stage.
The Dead, concentrating on their trademark improvisational rock, may disdain showmanship, but they know how to put on a show. During their traditional "Rhythm Devils" and "Space" numbers, a sexy group of five female fire dancers came out to add even more heat and light to the far-out proceedings.
The Dead seemed extra soulful on more introspective songs like "Unbroken Chain" and a 20-minute version of "Help on the Way." Because they are now among rock's senior citizens, choosing "Touch of Grey," their only Top 40 hit, as their final encore seemed symbolic.
Asked if they will tour again, Hart said, "We need to get through this tour first."
But the sense was that, as long as they remain healthy, this tour may be the beginning or a late career revival. Or not.
"Since Garcia died, everyone was unsettled musically and personally," said Hart's wife, Caryl. "It took a long time to find a new balance, and that's what you're seeing now."
The Dead play again at Shoreline on Thursday night. There's no telling when they may do that again. As someone close to the aging band said: "If you're a Deadhead, you don't want to sit this one out."
1.The Dead bassist Phil Lesh (left) and guitarist Bob Weir (front) perform at the Shoreline Amphitheater. The Dead performed its first homecoming show at the end of their first tour in five years in front of a packed house of fans at the Shoreline Amphitheater in
2. The Dead drummer Mickey Hart address the crowd to be patient for the start of the concert because thousands of ticket holders were still outside the amphitheater at the scheduled start of the concert Sunday. (Special to the IJ/Douglas Zimmerman)
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Williams, recuperating from a heart valve operation to correct an irregular heartbeat, had been sitting in the back of the theater during comedian Mark Pitta's weekly comedy night.
"We expected him to just watch," said Lucy Mercer, the theater's founder and artistic director. "He's still fragile, obviously."
But toward the end of the show, the lure of the stage became too strong for Williams to resist.
"I was saying goodnight to the crowd when he walked up, and I'm like, 'no way,'" Pitta said. "It was a total surprise to me. Then he went on to do 30 minutes."
Once he was on stage, the famously manic comedian confessed that he couldn't just sit in the back while other comics made people laugh.
"You know I'm a whore for an audience," he told the packed house.
The 57-year-old comedian is known to be a bundle of sweaty energy while performing, but this time fans became concerned when he appeared to be laboring even harder than usual.
"Ten minutes in, he was out of breath," Pitta said. "He kept saying, 'The doctors said I shouldn't be here. I need another month down.' It was like watching 'The Wrestler' with Mickey Rourke, only with comedy, and Robin up on top of the ropes, leaping off."
Williams, who has been living in Tiburon since his second wife filed for divorce last year, postponed his sold-out one-man comedy tour, "Weapons of Self-Destruction," after being hospitalized with heart problems and undergoing surgery at the Cleveland Clinic on March 13.
The 3.5-hour operation involved replacing his aortic valve and repairing his mitral valve. His doctors said he is expected to make a complete recovery.
He jokes that the next leg of the tour, expected to resume in the fall, will be called "Weapons of Self-Destruction and Reconstruction!"
There is a history of heart disease in Williams' family. In August 2007, his older brother, Robert Todd Williams, died of complications from heart surgery.
As he often did when he was developing material for his tour at the Mill Valley theater, Williams got into some good-natured bantering with members of the audience, joking about the cow's valve that was used to repair his heart.
"Somebody asked him from the audience if he craved different foods," Pitta said, "because he heard that with that surgery, a bovine valve, that's what happens. Robin said, 'Well I'm grazing more.'"
At one point, Williams engaged in an exchange with Corinna Kaufman, a 54-year-old "guided image practitioner and hypnotherapist" from Novato.
"In Marin, there's so much material based on that," Mercer said, commenting on Kaufman's new-agey occupation. "He went back and forth with her."
For her part, Kaufman was afraid the always antic Williams had over-taxed his newly repaired heart.
"He kept saying, 'My heart is going so fast,' and pounding his chest," she said. "He was so excited just being on stage that he said his heart was jumping all over the place. I was worried that he would keel over right there."
Williams was remarkably candid, talking about his surgery, his doctors and nurses, dealing with pain, other intimate matters.
"Personally, I think it was good for him," Mercer said. "He was really open with people. It was wonderful. This is his community."
Pitta concurred, saying, "At the end of it, in the Green Room, he looked at me and said, 'I needed that.'"
Monday, May 4, 2009
Jai Uttal, the world music star who has just released a transformational new album, "Thunder Love," was sitting on a plump couch the other day in a comfy corner of Open Secret, the San Rafael New Age bookstore, when strains of exotic music floated from the shop's sound system, causing him to bolt upright and his eyes to light up like an electric Buddha.
It was a song by the Bauls of Bengal, India's wandering street musicians, that shocked him into a reverie of recognition. When he was a young seeker entranced by Indian music and Eastern spirituality, he lived among them, traveled with them, communicating with them only through music.
"Do you hear that?" he asked me. "That music was very influential, very important to me. Those people
Audio: Jai Uttal - Bhavani Shankara
By then, though, he was already well known. In 1990, he broke through with his very first album, "Footprints," an innovative collaboration with the late jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and Indian singer Lakshmi Shankar that combined acoustic and sampled sounds from India, Turkey, Africa and the Middle East. It has since become a classic.
"With that album, I got famous," he said matter-of-factly.
He is quick to acknowledge another major musical debt, this one to Ali Akbar Khan, the famed North Indian maestro who founded San Rafael's Ali Akbar College of Music in 1967.
A New Yorker who retains a trace of an accent, Uttal came to Marin when he was 19 to study with Khan, taking lessons in voice and the sarod, the 25-stringed instrument of which Khan is the recognized master.
A multi-instrumentalist singer and songwriter, Uttal has produced a series of acclaimed albums over the past two decades, blending Indian music, Appalachian folk, psychedelic rock, hip-hop, jazz, you name it.
In 2002, his album "Mondo Rama" earned him his first New Age Grammy nomination.
At 57, Uttal, who lives with his family in San Anselmo, has short salt-and-pepper hair, speaks in a gentle voice and wears one gold earring and a necklace with a silver feather pendant. On the day of this interview, he had on a brown leather shirt jacket with western snaps and light green pants with a drawstring.
Until he was in his late 40s, his life and career looked pretty rose-colored from the outside. Then, as now, he earned a nice living traveling around the country leading workshops in kirtan yoga chanting and meditation, a practice that enthusiasts see as a way "to open the heart of infinite love."
Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, praised him as "one of the most extraordinary spiritual chanters and ecstatic singers of
But Uttal is the first to confess that he was living a lie. His heart was as slammed shut as a prison door. While his public image was one of an enlightened, spiritual musician who some fans even saw as a guru, the truth was that he was an alcoholic and drug user whose personal life was out of control.
"It was a dark period for me because my public persona and my internal experience were such a dichotomy," he admitted. "I never felt I was being phony or hypocritical, but I was so miserable inside that I didn't see my way out of it. Here I was performing chanting and devotional music that was about finding your way out of these dark holes. But somehow or other I had dug myself in so deep I couldn't get myself out.
"Part of it was the drugs and alcohol, but some part of me needed to take that tunnel as far down as it was going to go before I could come out and breathe again. I was very physically sick, but nobody knew it. I had no one to share how absolutely hopeless I felt inside of me. I felt really alone."
And then, when he was 49, he met his soul mate, Nubia Teixeira, a young Brazilian dancer and yoga teacher who is now his wife.
"Before I met her, I didn't believe in the concept of soul mates," he said. "I thought it was romantic wishful thinking. But when I met Nubia my whole internal landscape changed."
Not long after they were married, Nubia, now 36, gave birth to their son, Ezra Gopal, now 4, Uttal's first child.
"I didn't expect to have a child," he confided. "Ezra was born when I was 54 and totally out of that way of thinking. My wife thought she never wanted a child either. But we started feeling the energy of this being. At first we pushed it away, but then we stopped pushing away and everything changed - Ezra was born."
As a middle-aged husband who suddenly found himself a first-time father, Uttal realized that he had to make some major changes in his life.
"The primary one was getting sober," he said. "I was never a party animal or carouser, but I had consistently been taking drugs and drinking alcohol since I was a kid. Getting clean and sober was a big job. It didn't happen overnight."
But it happened. And the result of his transformation from the dark into the light is reflected in "Thunder Love."
"That goes right into what 'Thunder Love' is about - the opening to love and trust expressed through song," he explained. "It's why this album is different from all the others."
It's also different in that it focuses heavily on guitar and banjo and incorporates Brazilian instruments and rhythms for the first time in a significant way.
On this album, Uttal also sings more in English than he ever has, using Sanskrit only in the chants and choruses. Aside from the complex structure and length of several of the nine songs, it's a catchy, commercial record with lots of pop hooks and memorable melodies.
He says this album is about opening up to love and to life, at long last. That's patently evident on "Bolo Ram (Let the Spirits Sing)." As he sings in his fine clear voice, "Looking 'round my bedroom for some evidence that there's still reason to be alive / Not so long ago I lost my innocence simply trying to survive / Memories come and go but nothing stays / You know still I hold on tight / 'Cause without your love I could live a million days and never get it right."
At this mature point in Uttal's professional and personal life, he seems to have finally gotten it right.
Friday, May 1, 2009
The Chris Isaak Band headlines in a few weeks at the Sonoma Jazz Plus Festival, a rare close-to-home concert that drummer Kenney Dale Johnson sees as chance to prove to his San Rafael neighbors once and for all that he really is a professional musician.
"We play in the North Bay so seldom that my neighbors don't believe I'm in a band," he says with a contented smile one unseasonably warm afternoon, sitting on the back deck of his Gerstle Park home in blue short-sleeve shirt and black shorts, sipping a tall, cool one and gazing at the inviting water of his swimming pool.
In point of fact, Johnson, who's "54 and kickin'," has always been in a band. From the time his postal worker father bought him a drum set when he was 12 (which he still
"It was post-Beatles, when everybody wanted to be in a band," he says. "I'm from a podunk town and everybody had a band. I don't know why, but I always wanted to play drums."
Johnson, who wears his jet-black hair slicked back rockabilly style, is a charismatic transplanted Texan who sprinkles his conversation with down-home colloquialisms like "good Lord" and "good night, nurse."
He has been Isaak's drummer, sidekick and friend for the past 24 years, a year longer than he's been married to his wife, Katherine.
"I drum and sing and crack wise," he says in his residual Lone Star twang, describing his duties as Isaak's right-hand man.
Isaak plucked him out of Ronnie Spector's band in 1984, and they've been tight as a tick ever since.
"I met Chris before he was famous, before he had any records out," Johnson recalls. "Somebody told me, 'There's a guy looking for a drummer and you'd be perfect.' When I heard what was essentially a demo of the first album, I went, 'Oh, my God.' I loved his voice and I loved the songs. I thought, 'This is right up my alley.' So I auditioned, got the gig, such as it was back then, and 24 years later we're still traipsing around the world."
With a new CD, "Mr. Lucky," Isaak's first studio album in seven years, and a new TV show, "The Chris Isaak Hour," on A&E's Bio network, they can look forward to traipsing around the world for some time to come.
Which suits the personable, self-effacing sideman just fine. In today's depressed economy, as the ailing music business tries to reinvent itself, he has no complaints.
"We still get to make records on a major label," he says. "We still get to have a tour bus. People don't understand that tour buses are far superior to flying. And people still come to see us. We're blessed, and we know it, at this stage to have people still caring. That's a big deal to us."
Johnson is fascinated by rock history, and happily recounts his own journey from the "oil patch" in the Texas Panhandle where he grew up to upscale Marin County and enduring success with a major rock band.
After high school, he went to the University of Texas in Austin, hung out with "runnin' buddy" Stevie Ray Vaughan and played in an R&B band called Steam Heat.
In 1977, "to seek my fame and fortune, I moved to San Francisco," he says.
But fame and fortune were slow in coming. Johnson arrived when the celebrated San Francisco Sound was disappearing in pop music's rear-view mirror. And for the first few years, he scuffled as a freelance drummer.
"I've played with everybody," he says. "I've played in every bar you can think of."
Even after hooking up with Isaak, a heartthrob roots rocker who favors Nudie suits and plays an acoustic guitar with his name emblazoned across the front, it was more of the same, at least at first.
"That was the day of hair bands (Motley Crue, Great White, the Scorpions) and acts like Madonna," Johnson recalls. "We made no sense. Our first album, 'Silvertone,' in 1984, wasn't a hit."
Nevertheless, it had a couple of songs on it, "Gone Ridin'" and "Livin' for Your Lover," that director David Lynch put on the soundtrack of his kinky cult classic "Blue Velvet."
"The second album, which we call "the Green Album" (real title: "Chris Isaak"), had "Blue Hotel" on it, which was a hit in France," Johnson says.
Closer to home, Isaak band gigs at the Nightbreak and I-Beam clubs in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and at now-defunct New George's in San Rafael were generating a lot of local buzz. "Around '87, before we hit nationally, It was fun being one of the biggest bands in the Bay Area," he remembers.
The third album, "Heart-Shaped World," which included the career-changing "Wicked Game," was the charm.
Lynch again played a role in keeping Isaak's music in the public consciousness when he featured an instrumental rendition of "Wicked Game" in his 1990 film "Wild at Heart."
When an influential disc jockey in Atlanta saw the movie and started pushing the vocal version of the song, he sparked a national phenomenon. Just like that, "Wicked Game" was a Top 5 worldwide hit. But the Isaak band wasn't too big to play hometown clubs like New George's throughout the '90s.
In 1997, Johnson and his wife bought their San Rafael home and have been proudly part of the Marin music community ever since.
"I bump into the craziest people here," he says, beaming. "I bump into James Hetfield (Metallica) all the time. I run into Santana at the car wash and (Huey Lewis drummer) Bill Gibson at Mollie Stone's. I see Sam Andrew (Big Brother and the Holding Company) painting in a coffee shop. He was on 'Cheap Thrills,' for God's sake. I'm a big fan. I love this place."
He and his wife were miserable when they had to live for months at a time for three years in Vancouver, B.C., during the filming of Showtime's "The Chris Isaak Show," a behind-the-scenes sit-com about the band in which Johnson played an exaggerated version of himself. "We were up there for eight months during the season. Talk about homesick. Oh, man, did I miss Marin."
Johnson won't have to be away from home that long shooting "The Chris Isaak Hour." He's able to commute from Marin to a studio in Los Angeles where the program's taped.
"It's an interview show with one artist, 30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of interview," he explains. It's kind of guerrilla TV. We can shoot an episode a day. It's good fun. Chris and I ride to the airport together. We have a lot of time to brainstorm."
During the musical numbers, Johnson, looking like a Buddha behind his drum kit, can be seen on a riser in the center of the stage, backing up guests like Glen Campbell, Stevie Nicks, Jewel, Michael Buble and Cat Stevens, who's trying to make a comeback.
Promoting the new album, Johnson just got home from a 3-week concert tour of Australia with Isaak and band.
The Sonoma Jazz Plus concert will be the last show until the band sets out on a West Coast tour from July through September.
Johnson's glad to be going. After all this time, he takes nothing for granted. He remains grateful that he's been able to make a living doing what he loves to do for so long.
"We're very fortunate because we always try to put on a good show," he says, explaining the band's secret of success. "We feel every night is an audition for the next one. We realize that people go to a lot of troublcome to a concert. They spend a lot of money, they hire a baby-sitter, so we don't want to let them down. And I think that's paid off. We still have a good draw and people still come out to see us. Thank goodness."
IF YOU GO
- What: Sonoma Jazz Plus featuring Chris Isaak and Kenney Dale Johnson
- When: 6:30 p.m. May 24 (Jazz Fest is from May 21 to 24)
- Tickets: $45 to $250
- Information: 866-527-TIXX or www.sonomajazzplus.org
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at email@example.com