In Praise of the Purple Onion

The most historic comedy club in America that exists today won’t in October. The building that contains the Purple Onion’s 60-year-old subterranean stage was recently sold and will be gutted; taken with the red booths and faux-brick walling will be the legacy of The Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Phyllis Diller.  I have a personal history with the club that goes back almost twenty years now, and its passing is truly awful-  personally, to the comedy community, and San Francisco as a whole.

In 1994, the Onion was showcasing garage bands under the psychotic stewardship of a local victim described by the SF Weekly as “Crispin Glover after two weeks of intravenous double-lattes.”  The club where I was on staff, my beloved Holy City Zoo, had just closed down and a couple of comics and myself had formed a production troupe staging shows at alternative and DIY venues, and we pitched the return of comedy to The Onion. It did not go well. When the guy in charge of the room is drunk and heckling the show, sends rookie comics offstage in tears, and needs physical coercion to cough up the door split, that’s not good. But for a while I had the honor of saying I put on the first comedy show at the Onion in over a decade. It closed soon after- an entire trust-fund spent by a managerial lunatic on 3-chord surf music and kegs of PBR.

The space itself was taken over by the Ascione family, who operated Macaroni Sciue Sciue upstairs, and it was ignominiously used as a storage area. At the time I was living in North Beach, and would walk by the shadowy staircase and envision a time when I could once again put on shows there. Ten years after our first debacle, while arranging a photo shoot with Don Novello, I learned that Mario had restored the place and was planning a re-opening. Mario had great intentions, but little knowledge of our local comedy scene, so I offered to start off booking the club for him. Opening night of “Jim Short and Friends” will forever be a homecoming, a triumph, and now a bittersweet remembrance.

Jim became my partner and whenever he was in town, Jim Short & Friends were the likes of Greg Proops, Will Durst, Tom Rhodes, Arj Barker, Robert Hawkins, Greg Behrendt- national headliners playing a 99-seat basement club because of the love of the room.  There were other great shows, too- with Paul Krassner, W. Kamau Bell, Will Franken, Mike Birbiglia. All of them unique, honest, and brilliant comics.   It also allowed me to reconnect with the amazing young talent of which San Francisco always seems to have a bumper crop.

After a year or so, the birth of my daughter, and tons of great shows, I handed the reins of the Onion over to David Owen, a truly professional producer and co-founder of SF Sketchfest, who proceeded to up the ante by bringing in the likes of Judah Friedlander, Doug Stanhope, the return of Mort Sahl, and a DVD production for Zach Galifianakis.

Then in 2007, I partnered with Crackle/Sony Entertainment to film “Live at the Purple Onion,” a stand-up web series that allowed me to present Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and other personal favorites. And that’s the thing- I had the incredible privilege of always booking shows that I would have wanted to see. My shows ran on equal parts talent and goodwill, as the size of the place makes a big payday impossible. I didn’t need to worry if my acts had the right TV credits, social media clout, or mailing list. I didn’t have to care if we made good numbers with nachos. My shows were by candlelight, there was no drink minimum, and the comics dressed up.

The ongoing problem at this point was that the club had become a room-for-hire, with a hodge-podge of producers bringing in various showcases, theme shows, and comedy-college graduations. Quality could be amazing or unwatchable, and I started hearing complaints from people who had been coerced into going there to watch their friends’ first time on a real comedy club stage.  I love Mario- he’s honest and has a great heart- which is probably why working in show business was challenging for him. Plus he had the gift and the burden of having an intimate venue.

After years away, I had actually booked a show there for September 6th, when I heard the awful news that the building had been sold and the Onion would be no more. Then I asked for and was given the Purple Onion’s final show, which will be on Monday, September 24th.

This Thursday’s show is Bob Rubin, with Larry Bubbles Brown, Randy Hauser, and more. Tix are available via Eventbrite here: http://onenightwithbobrubin.eventbrite.com/

Plans for the last show are still underway, and tix will go on sale soon. We’re looking to send the place off in style, with a marathon of great comics as- what else?- Jim Short & Friends. If you want to be notified when tickets will be released to the public, write me at dan@dandion.com  .

I’ve heard variously that the building is going to be a steakhouse or a strip club, but for me, the most gorgeous prime rib or even the tastiest slab of T&A doesn’t compare to a night of hilarious, smart comedy on a stage steeped in history.

Toast to the club with Bob Rubin.

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Read more.. Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

In Praise of Patton Oswalt

Twenty years ago, at a dingy nightclub on a block of Clement Street in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District, the aging comedy boom of the 8o’s gave birth to the snarky, cynical, over-educated meta-child that would come to be known as Alt Comedy. (Like most nicknames, it was not chosen, but given.) Cable shows had oversaturated  the market; genuine wit and brilliant absurdity had been replaced by annoyed populist observations. Hollywood had once again siphoned off some of The City’s most promising performers, and was trying desperately to figure out how best to vampirize native daughter Margaret Cho. But SF was still a mecca for stand-ups, and a peak was imminent with the ascension of a few bright locals, and the immigration of several others- locals Greg Behrendt, Laura Milligan, Brian Posehn, and Arj Barker broke out. Fiery journeymen Marc Maron and Tom Rhodes hung out their shingles from our hills, and from the Baltimore/D.C. area came Jeff Hatz, Blaine Capatch, and Patton Oswalt- a comic triumvirate  raised on Monty Python, Alan Moore, and The Pixies.   “The Class of 1992″ had arrived.

Laura Milligan, Greg Behrendt, Brian Posehn, Blaine Capatch, and Patton- 1994

I was a part of that class, too. albeit with a different function. I’d put my Jesuit philosophy degree to work as a staff member of the Holy City Zoo, San Francisco’s most historic and legendary comedy club, where 80’s celebrities like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and Bobcat Goldthwait earned their stripes, and utterly unique and brilliant talents such as Bob Rubin, Warren Thomas, and Jeremy Kramer still prowled the stage, fighting the thumping live music from the Last Day Saloon upstairs.  Capacity: 79 not counting the roaches. It was here that I married my love of comedy with my photography career and started shooting portraits of these most dynamic artists.

Patton Oswalt in my vintage Volvo.

Patton Oswalt stood out in any show’s line-up. He had a different kind of energy, material that never seemed contrived, and a distinctive vocal timbre that projected confidence, even when the joke was on himself. He can be self-deprecating, but he’s never a loser.  He was early geek-chic, and proud to be a comic book nerd way way way before it was mainstream. He’s never seemed concerned with being “cool,” as cool requires acceptance by and admiration of the majority. Patton’s comedy consoles you that it’s ok not to be.

There’s a bit of a Dennis Miller in him; he throws references around like you ought to know them. But I got all of Miller’s and maybe two-thirds of Patton’s. But I never had any desire to research Miller’s rantfrences, whereas Patton led me to read The Man in the High Castle and tipped the scales as I browsed the racks at Amoeba Records. His comedy can be a hyperlink, whereas Miller’s was arrogance plugged in to a bit. It annoys me when comics use pop culture references as the punchline, and the audience laughs in self-congratulation at getting it. Patton uses them to frame his context, to let you know who he is and where he’s coming from.


In an ad for Dark Horse Comics

Early on, I can recall someone in the industry saying he was “very ambitious” which was intended as a patronizing insult but I took as the opposite. He may have been insubordinate to the timeline ladder, but he was headlining and producing his own theme shows in short order. His impeccable taste in comedy and respect from his peers has allowed him to gather amazing people. (I look back on his “Four Tuesdays of the Apocalypse” show flyer that reads like a time capsule of the city’s best.) Many years later this talent would manifest itself as he created The Comedians of Comedy with Posehn, Maria Bamford, and not-yet-household-misspelled-name Zach Galifianakis.

Patton in SF

One great thing is that he’s always writing. Even if you see him just six months apart you can bet that half his set is going to be new, or at the very least material you haven’t heard before. Can’t see him live? Check out his blog. Or watch Ratatouille with your kids (or without) to see one of the few Disney projects that doesn’t involve a woman being rescued. Or read his interview in ¡SATIRISTAS! Or see Big Fan for a film about obsession (with a brilliant climax). Or see him in Young Adult with Charlize Theron and tell me what it’s like to see a film in a theater. (My two young kids have constricted this activity for me.) And he still finds time to appear in his friends’ webisodes, get arrested on Reno 911, write a book, and give a graduation speech to his high school.  The fucker is prolific.

Patton and David Cross at Cobb's Comedy Club

There’s a great example of his comic worldview in his closing note as guest editor of the “The Funny Issue” of Spin Magazine. If anything, I think he’s an example that you can be very smart onstage and off-  without having to prove that you are smarter than everyone else.

Class of 1992 Revisited- 2009

ALL PHOTOS ©DAN DION

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Read more.. Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

In Praise of Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams at the Warfield- 2001

I first saw Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in 1997, when she was just about to release her breakout album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. A few years earlier I’d seen Johnny Cash and he’d done a fairly complete job of curing me of my distain for country music. I’d soon be musically educated to learn that what I didn’t like was actually what was considered “new country” at the time- your Garth Brooks/ Billy Ray Cyrus kinda music.

I’ve always had a preference for great lyricists- Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman. And I’d soon find that so-called country music has some of the best songwriters in the world as I delved into the work of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda.

Lucinda and Band at The Fillmore – 1997

But I had no idea she’d become one of my favorite musicians at that first Fillmore show. I just liked what I heard and made the effort to get a shot of her with her band backstage in the stairway.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 1997

Cut to two years and a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album later. “Car Wheels” was a huge hit and critics had gone apeshit over a blend of rock, blues, country and folk. They were calling it “Americana” and “Roots Music” when in truth it was just a great blend of all of it anchored by a true poet.

Lucinda Williams at The Warfield – 1999

And Lucinda had clearly been inundated by media with her new renowned, and it took about half an hour before she came out from her dressing room to do a portrait with me. But she was incredibly kind and gracious when we did it. And I guess she’d been doing lots of annoying photo shoots because she said “I LOVE the way you take pictures! Other photographers always tell me to do this and that and look this way and you don’t do none of that!” Then she gave me a hug- something I wasn’t used to from my rock and roll subjects- and cementing me as a fan for life.

And in saying this she also helped me crystallize a part of my shooting style, which values comfort above all else. Without it, you’ll never get an honest portrait.

I think she’s had to deal with a lot of photog-douchebags over the years, because I’ve heard that she’s not a big fan of being shot- but she always seems to allow me to do a quick portrait- as long as I’m patient (she’s still a superstar, after all, and anointed by Time Magazine as America’s Best Songwriter).

Doug Pettibone at The Fillmore, 2003

But to be fair, I had a lot of help and advocacy from her guitarist for many years, Doug Pettibone. Somewhere around 2000, The Warfield had put up a shot of the band performing, and he’d seen it. I met him at The Fillmore the next year and he asked me if I knew the guy who shot it. “Yeah, I know him pretty well,” I said. We ended up hanging out and he came with me to a jam session at Capp’s Corner that was mostly comprised of cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon getting away from their camp and into some classic rock and soul tunes. He tore it up and we’ve been friends ever since.

Lucinda puts out a new album about every two or three years,  and it never disappoints. There aren’t too many artists who’s vocals and lyrics seem to get better all the time- Bonnie Raitt is an example. But what sets her apart, especially as a female artist, is that she can be honey-sweet one moment and whisky-sour the next without coming off as contrived. She can be growly, angry, and raunchy, then tender, sad, and lovely, then pointed, poignant, and political.

And something else I find attracts me to her music (and is often the case with artists I admire- be it Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, or late-era Beatles) is the percentage of songs that aren’t about love. While she can pine over lost lovers and do done-wrong songs with the best of them, she also sings of suicide, wealth, abuse, and in one case how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get her off. Not exactly the stuff of country music clichés.

Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore – 2003

She’s so smart, yet so American. So vulnerable, yet so strong and sexy. If I had to pick one word to describe her, though, it would be “authentic.” If you wonder where the heart of country music went, look no further.


Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 2003
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Read more.. Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

In Praise of Les Paul

In Praise of Les Paul

Les Paul at The Iridium near Lincoln Center in 1998

Les Paul died a year ago today. I wanted to share these two images of him. His passing was the loss of one of the greatest innovators in music, as he created the first solid-body electric guitar, which as I understand it is an instrument that is really starting to catch on.

This first time I saw him was at the original Iridium nightclub in New York in 1998. He was so amazing and spry, busting out licks and dropping Monica Lewinsky jokes between songs. Every once in a while his arthritic hands would seize up on him and he’d have to pull his left hand over the guitar neck and slap his picking hand to get it to release. But he did it so fluidly and in rhythm that it seemed to be part of the song.

I went back to the new Iridium on Times Square almost ten years later and he didn’t seem to be a day older. After each of his weekly performances, he sat at a table to meet every fan that stood in line. What an epic human.

Les Paul at The Iridium in Times Square circa 2007
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Read more.. Thursday, August 12th, 2010